Pa. school drops 'Huckleberry Finn' over use of N-word
The classic novel, the tale of a young boy who fakes his own death to escape an abusive father before riding the Mississippi River alongside an escaped slave, is often challenged for its honest depiction of racism in the US, including the stinging, dehumanizing language directed at black characters. Despite overall anti-racist sentiment, the novel was the 14th-most challenged book in the US in the 2000s, showing that some outrage has abated with time.
Yet last week, following a forum for students and faculty, Friends' Central School, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, dropped the novel from an American literature class for 11th grade students, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits," Principal Art Hall said in a letter sent to parents.
To remove "Huckleberry Finn" from your curriculum is to confess your literary ignorance and institutional cowardice: https://t.co/qIyruZ1sbC— Terry Teachout (@terryteachout) December 12, 2015
honestly I could probably smash my head into a keyboard and it would still make as much sense as the adventures of huckleberry finn— 2 turtle dugs (@sierradugan) December 12, 2015
The harsh language in the book alarmed some students, who felt the school was not being inclusive in how they organized curriculum, Hall said.
"I'm very proud of the process that our community engaged in to make the decision," Hall said.
"Peaceful resolution of conflicts, seeking truth, and collaboration are key aspects of a Friends' Central education," the school's website says in a nod to Quaker philosophy.
Hall said Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remain in the school library, and that the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – Douglass' self-portrait of his journey from slave to respected statesman – will be taught to 11th-grade students.
Hall said the decision was made with students, not for them.
"I do not believe that we're censoring. I really do believe that this is an opportunity for the school to step forward and listen to the students," he said.
Across the nation, schools have made similar decisions about Twain's novel in the past 130 years. Schools near Friends' Central are no different, as some have tinkered with teaching the novel in class or making it available in the school library.
"We don't shy away from teaching it," Jim Miller, dean of students and an English teacher at Friends Select School in Philadelphia, told the Inquirer. "We see it as a very important opportunity to educate kids further about the use of language, especially the use of the N-word."
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said that about 300 to 400 challenges to books are recorded in the US each year. Removing a book from a school curriculum is usually considered a challenge to the organization.
"We would still see this as a kind of censorship because there is something to be learned from this work," Caldwell-Stone said.
Happy Birthday, Huckleberry Finn! ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN was first published today in 1884 in the U.K. pic.twitter.com/49ozadyCHD— The Mark Twain House (@TwainHouse) December 10, 2015
In 2011, a more politically-correct version of Twain's classic was published without the N-word, replacing the it with "slave."