Expelling 'Huck Finn'

By Nat Hentoff

Saturday , November 27, 1999 ; A25

The Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP has instructed its branches to file grievances with the state's human rights commission demanding that local school boards and district superintendents remove Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from mandatory reading lists.

The charge, supported by the national NAACP, is that "tax dollars should not be used to perpetuate a stereotype that has psychologically damaging effects on the self-esteem of African American children."

Some years ago I was talking to African American eighth-graders in a Brooklyn public school who had been reading "Huckleberry Finn" in class -- along with the history of racism in such towns as Hannibal, Mo., where Twain had grown up.

The students recently had been discussing the passage in which Huck, on the raft with Jim, was tormented by what he had been raised to believe -- that he would go to hell if he did not report this runaway slave to the owner.

Huck wrote a note doing just that, but finally, destroying the note, he said to himself, "All right, then, I'll go to hell!"

"Do you think we're so dumb," one of the Brooklyn eighth-graders said to me, "that we don't know the difference between a racist book and an anti-racist book? Sure, the book is full of the word 'Nigger.' That's how those bigots talked back then."

As Twain said years later, Huck, after writing the note, was struggling between "a sound heart" and "a deformed conscience" that he had to make right.

"The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi" -- Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times in 1982 -- "are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is 'Nigger Jim,' as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt."

Michael Meyers -- assistant national director of the NAACP under Roy Wilkins from 1975 to 1984 -- wrote to Julian Bond, the present NAACP chairman, about the organization's desire to censor "Huck Finn."

Calling the book "a great anti-slavery classic," Meyers -- now the executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition -- asked Bond whether there is an actual NAACP policy "that encourages NAACP branches to either support or seek book banning or censorship." Bond, as Meyers noted in his letter, is on the ACLU's national advisory council, as is the NAACP's president, Kweisi Mfume. If such a policy exists, Meyers wrote, "what are you doing -- or what are you prepared to do -- to change such a policy?"

Bond answered that "the NAACP does not have a policy for every occasion. Might I ask you for a policy we might adopt that could allow the NAACP to express outrage at racist expression while protecting free speech?"

Meyers was puzzled by the response because, he says, "Huckleberry Finn" -- as the youngsters in Brooklyn emphatically understood -- is anti-racist.

In 1998 Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected a lawsuit by an African American parent, who is also a teacher, asking that "Huckleberry Finn" be removed from mandatory reading lists in the Phoenix, Ariz., schools.

"Words can hurt, particularly racist epithets," Reinhardt wrote, "but a necessary component of any education is learning to think critically about offensive ideas. Without that ability, one can do little to respond to them." Part of learning to think critically about offensive speech is to understand the context in which it is used.

Bond might consider sending Judge Reinhardt's decision (Kathy Monteiro v. the Tempe Union High School District) to the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP. He might also inform it of "The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn" by Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, an African American who has been instructing black and white teachers about the book for years.

She writes: "Without the memory of what a word once meant and what it can continue to mean, we as a society are doomed to repeat earlier mistakes about ourselves, each other, and serious issues involving us all."

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