Another day another article on the sanitizing of Huck Finn, and when it is acceptable to read/teach it. Leaving aside the crass idiocy of switching out the “n-word” for the “s-word” the thing that surprised me the most about Twain-gate was learning that Huck Finn isn’t read until high school over here. Is that really true? Does no ones parents read it with them as a pre-teen? When I was growing up in London, in the apparently halcyon days of the 1980s and 1990s when young adults had unfettered access to “offensive” reading material, it was considered a young adult read. Therefore I read it when I was ten or eleven years old. For some this would appear to be too young but in my mind this is an ideal time to learn more about prejudice, equality and social history. For a comparison to the Huck Finn predicament, when I was thirteen we read Across the Barricades in school. This is a Romeo and Juliet style love between a Protestant and a Catholic in Northern Ireland during the civil war (or “troubles” as our then government like to refer to it as). Reading this book brought up discussions about mixed faith relationships, sectarian violence, and domestic terrorism whilst Northern Ireland was still very much in the process of tearing itself apart, and the IRA were still waging a brutal bombing campaign on the mainland. So I am afraid that I struggle to understand the issues around not teaching Twain (or other discussion provoking books) in schools when racism and intolerance is still very much a local and global issue.
So, seriously folks, what am I missing?
Is it that kids can’t understand the context that Twain was writing in and therefore it is offensive, or that it naturally leads to discuss about the “n-word”, slavery, the civil war and its legacy, and that’s too hard a topic for pre-tertiary discussion? I refuse to believe that kids are unable to grasp the context of Huck Finn despite the alarming amount of Disney-ficiation and dumbing down going on. At ten I was no pre-teen Twain scholar but I was not phased (or emotionally scarred) by reading books that contained offensive words or ideologies – hello Babar the benevolent dictator or the misogyny of the Famous Five. I may not have know what “context” was then but I had my own frame of reference in which to understand what I was reading: Star Trek.
Growing up I was not blind to the fact that attitudes towards gender, race, class and sexuality had changed overtime. It was easy to understand that when you compared everything to the equality reflected on Star Trek. Star Trek was the ideal. A time when people were judged on merit and by their actions not by their race, gender or sexual orientation. Hell even a northern Shakespearean thespian could be welcomed onto the bridge of the Enterprise. So as a kid I understood that I lived in a world somewhere between the stories set in the past, be them fairy tales, Huck Finn or the atrocities of World War 2 (please tell me kids in the US read the Diary of Anne Frank or The Silver Sword before they get to high school?) where society was rife with prejudice and discourse, and the glorious egalitarianism of the United Federation of Planets.
Huck Finn is a thought provoking read, and don’t young adults need to have thoughts and be provoked? Don’t kids today have their own frames of reference in order to be able to understand and evaluate the past? I may not have appreciated all the nuances and themes that Twain was going for in the book but I most definitely understood that the casual racism and prejudice was tied to the period it was set in. It reflected a dated ideology that jarred with my own London of the 1980s (just) and the 23rd century of my beloved Star Trek.
Kids shouldn’t live in bubbles, and parents and educators shouldn’t be afraid of challenging or pushing them outside of their comfort zone.