‘Huckleberry Finn’ controversy resurfaces and becomes target of N.J. lawmakers
The novel, considered by some to be a classic and by others to be a racist diatribe, could be stricken from school curriculums if two assembly members can help it
Mark Twain’s 1885 novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” has for generations been the center heated debate over whether its content was racist, or emblematic of the times in which it takes place.
But according to Politico, now two African-American members of the New Jersey State Assembly are calling out schools with a non-binding resolution for the state to remove the book from school curriculums.
The novel is viewed by many Americans as a classic. It is set in the antebellum south along the Mississippi River and tells the story of Finn, a white youth who escaped his home and abusive father, while adventuring with a runaway slave named Jim.
Although the book sits in most libraries and has been taught in schools since its 1885 publishing, it makes mention of the n-word more than 200 times. New Jersey state legislators Verlina Reynolds-Jackson and Jamel Holley say it causes problems with students who are compelled to read it.
“The novel’s use of a racial slur and its depictions of racist attitudes can cause students to feel upset, marginalized or humiliated and can create an uncomfortable atmosphere in the classroom,” reads the lawmakers’ resolution.
Some historians argue that the novel is simply depicting 19th century life. But Reynolds-Jackson told Politico there are other ways to teach students. “There are other books out there that can teach about character, plot and motive — other ways besides using this particular book for that lesson.”
Some versions being used omit the n-word, but critics have called it censorship and an obscuring of Twain’s original intent.
A contentious debate is ongoing as to whether or not a publishing company is correct to remove the n-word from new editions of the Mark Twain classic. Proponents of keeping the text as is argue that Huck Finn is an honest reflection of its era and that the n-word’s presence adds to its power.
The two politicians aren’t the first people to object to using Huck Finn in classrooms. According to the American Library Association, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was the 14th most banned or challenged book between 2000 and 2009. Also in 1996, the novel was temporarily removed from the curriculum in Cherry Hill, N.J., because parents and faculty wanted to discuss their approach on teaching it, according to PBS. In the end, they decided to give teachers a workshop on the book which was intended to “historical, cultural, and literary resources to see the novel in a new light.”
Still, not everyone feels this book is harmful or racist. Nobel Prize-winning African American author Toni Morrison praised the book and “its ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it has excited.
“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” she wrote.
The resolution by Reynolds-Jackson and Holley says the inclusion of the book in school curricula “in effect requires adolescents to read and discuss a book containing hurtful, oppressive, and highly offensive language directed towards African-Americans.”
Reynolds-Jackson says she doesn’t think think the book is directly racist but is just not a good fit for the climate in America currently.
READ MORE: Mark Twain remains censored, and uncensored
“I think in the climate that we’re in right now, where you have a president that is caging up our children and separating us in this way, I think to use this book in this climate is not doing the African-American community any justice at all.”
Although some New Jersey teachers claim to love teaching the book, according to the resolution school districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota and Mississippi have removed the book from their curriculums.