On several occasions, schools have challenged and banned the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its use of racial characterization and slang forthwith. The fictitious novel, written by Mark Twain, entails a story of a Negro slave and a white boy, whose journey downriver Mississippi regards a tale of two boys coming of age.
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After its publication and release in 1876, the book generated controversy in the world of literature that remains today because of its ‘inappropriate’ nature from a conservative viewpoint. It made teaching and reading the book controversial. This led to its banning in schools in the United States many times. But should Huck Finn be banned in schools?
In spite of the controversy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn generates, its hidden values support the use of this book in schools and prove the point it should not be among banned books. Indeed, the censorship of this book only blocks children from learning the history that surrounds the pre-Civil War and slavery. In this context, the conservative views with regard to this novel hurt the American education system as it blocks children from understanding the origin of the American Civil War and slavery.
Its banning stemmed from a supposed inappropriateness of the language used in the book at the time. However, for students today, understanding the use of the word “nigger” by Huck Finn, considered inappropriate and an insult at the time, would enable students to learn from the past and get used to offensive words in classrooms and social settings. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn language and characterization represent the context of America’s pre-Civil War era and slavery.
Racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Those who vote for the reasons why Huck Finn should not be taught in schools always mention the theme of racism.The banning of the Huckleberry Finn because of its racial characterization only results in racial lines between authorities and the parents.
Eventually, the students fail to learn how to deal with offensive language references in a sensitive manner. The wide variety of racial groups present in American schools today means that racial lines often occur, and sometimes students cross them unknowingly. Twain’s novel racial characterization regards the use of the word “nigger” throughout the book and forms the reason for its banning from the use in schools (Twain 14.56).
However, though many schools decided not to teach the book, Twain’s classic novel should remain on the list of books used in school teaching. Teaching the challenges of racialism will help place this novel into a contextual timeline in American history and enable students and readers to understand the reasons behind its censorship.
The central theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn goes beyond race. The classic American novel highlights the coming together of races or people who historically could not coexist. The book illustrates loyalty that transcends any racial and social desegregation and hence, an urgent universal theme to teach to students.
The language used in the novel, though inappropriate at the time, can help students today to understand and appreciate the depth of characterization in classic literature. The character Huck Finn’s usage of the word “nigger” (n-word) contextually bore no racial meaning during the pre-Civil War and slavery periods.
The word “nigger” only became inappropriate in public communication at the turn of the 19th century as such an insult (Carey-Webb 25). Students cannot learn from the past, especially the wrongs of the past, and subsequently change the future if the past remains blocked from them.
Mark Twain presented this novel in a way that condemns slavery and racism present at the time in American society. A runaway slave, Jim, gets assistance from a young boy, Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom. Although Huck regularly used the word “niggers” in the novel when referring to Jim and other African-Americans, he profoundly respected him and on several occasions, saved him from the return to slavery camps.
For instance, Huck makes an incredible decision when he tears his letter to Miss Watson that revealed Jim’s whereabouts; “I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things…and then I says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’…and never thought no more about reforming” (Twain 162). In light of deep racialism at the time, Huck Finn’s actions went against the standard expectations and as such, a positive role model in multi-racial school settings (Schulten 57).
In addition, the other white characters in this novel remain depicted in a negative way compared to Jim. For instance, Huck’s father, Pap, abuses alcohol while the King and the Duke engage in many malicious swindles.
These depictions show that Twain’s use of the word “nigger” when referring to Jim and African-Americans contained no racist or demeaning intent to the black population and could not be considered a racial slur. It shows the harshness of Southern life and the experiences underwent by black people in the pre-Civil War era which is the reason to keep the book in schools.
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The book highlights essential lessons regarding racialism and social values and this is one of the reasons why The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should not be banned. Its main character, Huck Finn, underwent significant moral development from the time he met Jim to the end of the book. In particular, Huck gets involved in a struggle between good and evil, a struggle in which good eventually prevails (Culture Shock 2).
For example, Huck learns of the Duke and the King‘s evil schemes, including the impersonation of the Wilks brothers, after which he realizes the streaks in character of his “friends.” “I felt so ornery and low down and mean, that I say to myself, My mind’s made up, I’ll hive that money for them or bust” (Twain 132). Hence, he disliked the racial segregation and the social practices taking place at the time. Thus, this is one of the arguments for the book belonging in the classrooms.
Banning Huckleberry Finn Because of Slavery Viewpoints
Among the reasons why Huck Finn should not be taught in schools there is also the theme of slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn represents the American society in the late nineteenth century, a period characterized by slavery and social exclusion of the black population from mainstream social activities. With regard to slavery, the novel “remains the only one that accurately portrays slavery, represents a black dialect, and highlights the significant role played by the African-American character in America’s history” (Carey-Webb 23).
In the book, Huck Finn portrays a positive role model when he aids Jim escape enslavement in the peak of slavery. While supporting the inclusion of the Adventures of Huckleberry at the school curriculum, Walrath writes; “the book demonstrates humanism, an idea that each person deserves respect and compassion, and attacks complacency regarding the social evils in our society” (Rationales 37). The social evils at the time included slavery and racial segregation of the nineteenth century.
Furthermore, the book captures a crucial section of American history. The settings of the novel, itself, involve a harsh environment in America’s history during racial exclusion. With regard to Twain’s use of the word “nigger,” Walrath reasons that the author “deliberately used the term to display the imperfect nature of a growing democracy” (Rationales 38).
Thus, the use of the term does not imply bias, rather its use bears historical implications as it captures the harsh social climate of the time. It shows that the application of the term matches with the cruel treatment slaves underwent during this era. It enables readers to understand slavery and the social awe associated with the word “nigger” in American history.
The Southern Lifestyle in Huckleberry Finn: Summary
Mark Twain satirizes the lifestyle in Southern cities of America in general through the way he depicts the characters. From the Grangerford family, Huck’s drunken father, the farmers, to the Duke and King, the characters represent the stubbornness and ignorance of Southerners back then. An example in this regard involves Huck’s father, Pap, who gets into a judge’s custody.
Subsequently, Pap pledges to change, an act that the judge declares the holiest time in history (Schulten 57). However, the following morning, the people find Pap drunk again. This hurts the judge, which appears ironic, as the judge believed that Pap would reform after his encounter with him. This example shows that the Southern citizens bore ignorance in this regard.
Southern lifestyles also involved family feuds and pointless conflicts. An example that illustrates the ignorance and absurdness of family feuds involves the Grangerford family. A rich family who treats him as part of the family takes in huckleberry. However, he later learns that a feud existed between Grangerfords and another family, the Shepherdsons.
The feud eventually leads to the murder of all the Grangerfords by the Shepherdsons in cold blood. This shows the pointless and stupid nature of the family feuds in Southern cities. Another example that shows the ridiculous nature of the Southern lifestyle regards the Duke and the King’s deceptive schemes, which, though silly, succeeded many times.
In the period leading up to the American Civil War, the customs, as well as the ideals of the North, contrasted significantly with that of the South. The South supported the institution of slavery, while the North opposed it (Carey-Webb 31).
Nevertheless, mainly the wealthy aristocrats owned slaves; the poor whites could not afford them. This factor, coupled with territorial conflicts caused by the westward expansion, culminated in the 1861 Civil War (Carey-Webb 33). Mark Twain uses satire to show the nature of the Southern lifestyle during the slavery era. He satirized slavery by revealing the ridiculous aspects of the Southern lifestyle and as such, calls for its abolition. Thus, the arguments for the necessity of Huckleberry Finn to be banned in schools because of racism are considered not viable.
People’s Viewpoints During this Era
During the slavery period, there arose the Abolitionists calling for the ending of slavery. However, some people, especially from the South, defended slavery.
Their argument revolved around economics, religion, humanitarianism, and religion. According to Booth, those defending slavery argued that an end to the slave economy would significantly affect the Southern economy, which relied heavily on cotton, rice, and tobacco farming (157).
They also held the view that freeing the slaves would result in widespread unemployment, and subsequently, uprisings and chaos. The defenders of slavery also argued that slavery in America mirrored slavery in other civilizations such as the Roman Empire and the Greek civilization and as such, represented a natural state of humankind.
From a religious viewpoint, the defenders of slavery argued that, in religious books such as the Bible, slavery remained widespread with no spiritual leader speaking out against it. In other words, slavery bore moral justification, as no one opposed it during biblical times. The defenders of slavery also involved the courts to legalize slave trade and slave ownership.
One example regards the Dred Scott Decision that ruled, “All blacks, including the slaves, lacked the legal right to launch anti-slavery case as they comprised the property of slave owners (Booth 163). Further, they held the view that the Constitution protected the right to ownership of property that included the slaves.
The defenders of the slave trade also argued for the divine nature of slavery. They believed that their introduction of Christianity into Africa helped eliminate heathen practices. According to this argument, slavery was expedient for the slaves as it ended the heathen practices and brought civilization to Central Africa. In fact, John Calhoun remarked that “the black race of Central Africa attained a civilized condition physically, intellectually and morally with the introduction of slavery” (Demac 60).
Others opposed to those campaigning for an end to slavery argued that the slaves got better care when sick and aged compared to slaves in Europe and the poor Northern States of America. James Thornwell remarked in 1860 that the conflict between those for slavery and those opposing the institution resembled an argument between Atheists and Socialists on one hand and supporters of social order on the other (Booth 164). This shows that slavery during this era attracted support from various people in the then American society.
Legal Cases Surrounding the Banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The basis for the banning of the novel involves the depiction of Jim as a black slave and the use of the word “nigger,”; considered racialist. After its publication in 1885, the novel was censored the same year by the Concord public library in Massachusetts. Initially, the book’s attack stemmed from what others termed as its lack of decency (Demac 59).
Later, it was attacked as containing racist elements. However, at the time, no legal cases contributed to the censorship of the book; the ruling class perceived the use of the term “nigger” as racist while a deeper look reveals that the book advocated for an end to slavery.
In 1902, the Brooklyn Public Library removed the book from its shelves for a different reason; they cited the use of vulgar language as the reason. In particular, the library considered the use of the words “sweats” instead of “perspiring” as obscene and unsuitable for children.
In addition, the use of “scratched” instead of “itched” considered inappropriate at the time by the institution led to the removal of the book from the children’s section (Karolides 336). Additionally, the main character, Huck, portrayed a disrespectful attitude for authority. At the time, society expected literary works to convey higher social values rather than entertaining. This contributed to its censorship in most schools and public libraries.
However, soon after its publication, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn became an indispensable classic book in schools. Nevertheless, in 1957, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) protested against the inclusion of this book in the school curriculum due to its “racist aspects” (Karolides 36). The organization opposed the way the novel portrayed the slave, Jim, as equal to a young white boy, Huck, and a superior to the adult with regard to the decision-making ability.
Additionally, As Donelson confirms, “…the entrenchment of Huck Finn into the curriculum of American schools coincided with a Supreme Court case involving Brown against Topeka Board of Education in 1954” (21). This case brought the segregation in public schools to an end. Subsequently, students in public schools comprised of both black and white children.
In fact, “in 1957, the New York City Board of Education removed the book from the list of elementary school texts on the rationale that it contained passages considered derogatory to the Negroes”(Rationales 37). The admission of black children in public schools led to new protests against Huck Finn that culminated in the censorship of the book in schools and counties with a black population.
Should Huck Finn Be Banned in Schools? Critics’ Opinion
Those who fought for the inclusion of Huck Finn in the curriculum include teachers and school administrators. The teachers in Connecticut supported the idea that Huck Finn served as an influential role model for schoolchildren today (Culture Shock 4). They even developed the rationales for teaching the censored book in high schools.
Norma Walrath, a committee member of the Connecticut Council of English Teachers, supported the teaching of this book, “for it shows the idea of humanism; compassion and respect of others unlike ourselves” (Rationales 37). She further explains that Huck Finn forms an indispensable book for use in teaching students because it covers an extremely prominent part in American history: slavery and racial desegregation.
Walrath remarks that Mark Twain uses the word “nigger” rather deliberately to display the imperfect nature of the developing democracy in America then (Rationales 38). As such, to ban the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in schools affects the teaching of American history and the evils of slavery: a valuable lesson that students in today’s schools should learn.
Jocelyn Chadwick is another strong supporter of Huck Finn, who actively campaigned for the book to remain in the curriculum for juniors in Okla. Additionally, she engaged in numerous debates. She even wrote a book on the subject titled the Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which primarily describes the value of teaching Huck Finn to high school students in America (Culture Shock 2).
Much of her argument focuses on the language references used in the book. She remarks, “Race relations remain a sensitive topic in America today, which serves to point the importance of Huck Finn because of the debate it engenders” (Carey-Webb 24).
In the 1950s, many critics such as Leo Marx and Bernard DeVoto in their articles objected to the abrupt banning of the novel in schools. They noted a confluence of the Black and White cultures in Huck Finn’s story (Donelson 24). In addition, they cite prestigious American themes in the novel, such as the hypocrisy practiced by the Southern States with regard to the continuation of slavery and racial separation worthy to read.
Ernest Hemingway, a renowned author and a supporter of the inclusion of Huck Finn in school curricula, remarks, “Modern American literature originated from Twain’s, Huckleberry Finn” (Carey-Webb 22). Thus, though the book underwent censorship on several occasions, it nevertheless remains a popular book in the country and schools should not ban the novel in the future.
The novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn appropriately describes slavery and racism in 19th Century America and this essay proves sufficient amount of reasons why Huck Finn should not be banned. Teachers should find ways to explain racism and its influence on modern-day society and culture with reference to the novel. The novel should remain in high school curriculum because it entails a fight against racism created, not through the racial aspects in the book, but the 19th Century capitalism.
Booth, Wayne. Censorship and the Values of Fiction. English Journal 53.3(1964): 155-164.
Carey-Webb, Allen. Racism and Huckleberry Finn: Censorship, Dialogue, and Change. English Journal 82.7(1993): 22-33.
Culture Shock. Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation. VHS 1999. 1-8
Demac, Donna. Liberty Denied; The Current Rise of Censorship in America. New York: PEN American Center, 1988.
Donelson, Ken. Filth’ and ‘Pure Filth’ in Our Schools—Censorship of Classroom Books in the Last Ten Years. English Journal 86.2(1997): 21-25.
Karolides, Nicholas et al. 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.
Schulten, Katherine. Huck Finn: Born to Trouble. English Journal 89.2 (1999): 55-59.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. England: Electronic Centre, 1885. Print.