The Way America's Schools Discuss Race in Literature Is Profoundly Flawed


The word "nigger" appears in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time in Chapter One.

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Our narrator speaks it casually, like reading an item off a grocery list. But its impact is anything but: By its 219th appearance, the word has become the book's standout characteristic, and in 2014, its fallout weighs heaviest on the high school kids asked to endure it.

Imagine being black in a largely white English class. For you, everything about "nigger's" recurrence is cringe-worthy — the surreptitious glances from classmates, the constant reminder that your people have been systematically brutalized, ridiculed and degraded throughout our country's history. Now you're forced to hear about it every few words for hundreds of pages, for the benefit of your white friends. Like you didn't know already.

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The lopsided discomfort this causes hasn't gone unnoticed, and recent efforts have been made to censor Huck Finn or remove it from schools altogether. Though its champions swear by its vitality, herein lies the problem: If the book's "greatness" stems from its satirical takedown of Reconstruction-era racism, why isn't the message coming across in the classroom?

Because for many students, it clearly is not:

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These kids aren't alone. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison said the book elicited in her a "muffled rage, as though appreciation of the work required [her] complicity in and sanction of something shaming." Sharon E. Rush calls its impact on black students "emotional segregation." In 2012, a teacher's aide at a Dubuque, Iowa private school was allegedly fired for disrupting a class to tell students that the book was "racist."

But it's one thing to struggle with the awkwardness of saying "nigger" in mixed academic company -- as a nation, we've never been good at discussing race, so why should school be any different? The problem is, "nigger" isn't really the issue. It's that teachers are poorly equipped to deal with its consequences. 

For all their talk about "satire" and "the great American novel," Huck's legacy remains that of a Trojan Horse that sneaks readers into a remarkably loaded cultural space, replete with casual n-bombs and kowtowing former slaves, then withdraws them relatively unscathed. More often than not, it's read without teachers adequately addressing the racist history it describes, or how it informs racial inequality today.

To complicate matters, there's no shortage of brilliant novels that deal with racism in an equally deft way, minus a white protagonist who, in the words of Louis C.K., "won't stop saying 'nigger.'" The inequality at play here is especially telling: Few novelized equivalents taught in American schools put white students in the same uncomfortable position Huck Finn forces onto black students.

That teachers so rarely possess the tools to effectively discuss racism, this founding principle of modern society, is troubling on its own. But instead of finding real solutions, we've too often resorted to cosmetic ones. Case in point is the censorship proposed by Auburn University professor Alan Gribben, which deletes "nigger" from the entire book and replaces it with "slave." NewSouth Books has since published this edition and distributed it to classrooms nationwide.

In the end, however, this does more damage than good. Instead of meeting the issue head on and using Huck Finn as an opportunity to have nuanced discussions about racism's role in shaping and maintaining America, we're left with an implicit denial of the issue's existence. If schools insist on teaching a book that expresses an already muddled anti-racist message by bombarding readers with racist language, teachers should be able to contextualize it in ways that prove valuable – and memorable – for students.

But as long as kids' primary takeaway from Huck Finn is that "nigger" popped up 219 times, it's safe to say the lesson isn't working. Something needs to change.