The Los Angeles Times ran an interesting and infuriating piece today, about one Mr. John Foley, a Washington State high school teacher who thinks it’s high time we banned Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from America’s classrooms. I mean, now that we have a black president and everything, shouldn’t we be able to burry our history of racial inequality and violence, not to mention that unmentionable word…you know. That fucking word that T.I. says all the time. Not that fucking word, the other one. The N-word. Wasn’t slavery over, like, 150 years ago? That’s basically forever, y’all.
Mr. Foley’s argument is not a new one. In a column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, quoted here from the Los Angeles Times he writes:
“The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms,” Foley wrote in a guest column this month for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.”
To which one might reply: Who was it if not a bunch of Huck Finn-reading racists who elected Barack Obama to office in the first place?
To which, one might also reply: It would be a grave mistake to censor out all but those books that present the world as we would have liked it to be, to exchange American classics for stories that graffiti pleasingly over eras when the vast, overwhelming majority of black people in this country were “ignorant, inarticulate, uneducated”, not for some lack of virtue but because the social and political system had been explicitly designed to keep them that way. Children, even obstinate 9th graders, can understand this. If we cannot explain those realities to their “angry African American mom”, then we have failed as readers, writers and educators of this generation.
Should we eliminate To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Huck Finn— the top three titles on Foley’s hit list, which also happen to be three of this nation’s most beloved literary treasures by three of its most venerable authors, one a fucking Nobel Laureate—because they lay bare a historical moment of which we are no longer proud, in the now-forbidden parlance of those times?
Is the only way to explain the suffering of those socially, ethnically and historically different from us is to somehow contort them all into figures more palatable to our contemporary tastes? And what if those tastes change? And what if they are not universally held to begin with? Great literature endures, but our definition of PC changes all the time. Let them all read Wikipedia.
On the AP English Literature test administered to most upper-tier college bound high school seniors, Huck Finn was the fifth most commonly cited book since 1970. The first? Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, still considered one of the most important works of African American fiction in the 20th century. If that doesn’t say something about how American students read, I don’t know what does.
If American public schools are to remain our common denominator—the supposedly (though not really) leveled perch from which we must leap and claw our way to the American Dream—then our mistakes, as well as our triumphs, ought to be analyzed. Moreover, the great letters of our adolescent country deserve to be read. It should be noted that Twain’s masterpiece was banned periodically until the 1970s not because it demonized African Americans, but because it lionized their struggle. When, exactly, did we become so obtuse? After all, we all studied the same books in school. Or at least, we used to.