Huck Finn and Teaching the “N-word”
Growing up in Canada, I was never required to read Mark Twain, so I never did (I do remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes where he appears as Samuel Clemens though). With the controversy surrounding the editing of the The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve decided to go out and read it. I’ve also realized that as someone who aspires to teach American history, this particular controversy is rather important to me. I know I don’t support the changing of the text, but I do think that teaching the “n-word” is difficult, no matter what the race of the students or teacher. With that, I link to this outstanding essay from Autumn 2005 issue of The American Scholar, “Teaching the N-Word,” by University of Vermont English professor Emily Bernard. Here’s a taste:
Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.