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Defending Literature from the Left and Right

It's a tough time to be an English teacher.


Considering that schools have always been on the front lines of the culture wars, it is no surprise that our present political climate has found its way into our English classes. Even though most teachers believe that the books students read should reflect the growing diversity in our country, those on the right want to ban certain works—like Toni Morrison's Beloved most recently in Virginia and Art Spiegelman's Maus most recently in Tennessee—that represent voices of historically marginalized communities or depict historical events that threaten existing power structures. Simultaneously, those on the left want to remove traditional works from required reading lists—like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird most recently in Seattle—that are believed to perpetuate white supremacy and systemic racism.


This attempt by parents, activists, and lawmakers to control what young people read is the subject of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, entitled, "My Young Mind Was Disturbed by a Book. It Changed My Life." (January 29, 2022). In his essay, Nguyen recounts his experience of reading Larry Heinemann's 1974 novel Close Quarters when he was about "12 or 13 years old" and being shocked by its racism, misogyny, and brutality towards Vietnamese people. Despite the fact that the book was deeply disturbing, Nguyen states that he "didn't complain to the library or petition the librarians to take the book off the shelves. Nor did my parents." Instead, when he became an adult, he penned his "own novel about the same war," this time from a Vietnamese perspective.


What was most compelling about Nguyen's account—at least from the perspective of an English teacher—was when he decided to re-read the novel later in his life. As an adult, he recognized that he had completely "misconstrued Mr. Heinemann's intentions" when he was a young, inexperienced, unsupervised reader. Nguyen now recognizes that


[Mr. Heinemann] wasn't endorsing what he depicted. He wanted to show that war

brutalized soldiers, as well as the civilians caught in their path. The novel was a damning

indictment of American warfare and the racist attitudes held by some nice, average

Americans that led to slaughter and rape. Mr. Heinemann revealed America's

heart of darkness. He didn't offer readers the comfort of a way out by editorializing

or sentimentalizing or humanizing Vietnamese people, because in the mind of the

book's narrator and his fellow soldiers, the Vietnamese were not human.


Reading Nguyen's essay, I immediately thought of Toni Morrison's recollection of reading Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time, which she recounts in her Introduction to the 1996 Oxford Edition of Twain's novel. She remembers feeling "palpable alarm" as a child when reading it independently "without guidance or recommendation." She then read it a second time in a junior high English class that made her even more uncomfortable, prompting a "muffled rage," as if an "appreciation of the work required my complicity in and sanction of something shaming." The feeling that Morrison had as a child is the primary reason why Twain's work has been removed from many required reading lists.


When I taught in the Bay Area after graduate school in the late 1990s, I was part of a public high school that chose not to teach Twain's novel out of respect and concern for how it would make our African American students feel reading the n-word over 200 times in the text. At the time I agreed with the policy, thinking that it displayed genuine sensitivity for the emotional wellbeing of our students. As I grew older—and perhaps more confident in my abilities as a teacher—I began to think that our school had missed a valuable opportunity to have honest discussions about race and racism with our students, both Black and white.


Similar to Heinemann's novel, the story of Huck's journey down the Mississippi River is told from a first-person perspective. We learn that Huck's casual racism throughout the novel is the product of his social conditioning. What becomes clear is that Huck's racism is rooted in ignorance—just as it is for every other white person in the novel. This awareness does not make the reading any easier, but it does reveal Twain's satiric intent. For white readers, it should be difficult reading Twain's novel without feeling a sense of guilt—and perhaps shame—for the society our ancestors had created; for Black readers, it should be difficult reading Twain's novel without feeling "muffled rage"—and perhaps shame—that their ancestors had to endure that type of degradation. In other words, everyone should be uncomfortable reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—that was Twain's intent.


As English teachers, our job is not just to make students aware of the author's purpose, but to also help them understand the work's significance. It should be clear, for instance, that when Huck first describes Pap that his father represents the worst of white America:


There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like

another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's

flesh crawl—a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white.


Twain repeats the word "white" six times in one sentence, and every time he uses it, we are meant to be further repulsed by the color of Pap's skin and what it represents. When Pap goes on a rant a few pages later about the "mulatter" professor from Ohio—who was "most as white as any white man"—having the audacity to walk freely down the street in slave-state Missouri, Pap cannot understand why the professor isn't immediately seized and "put up at auction and sold." When Pap repeatedly uses the n-word to emphasize his point, readers should know that they are meant to be repulsed by those words because the person uttering them is also repulsive.


Not to use the exact language that an ignorant racist in the antebellum South would have used would not only have lacked verisimilitude, but it would also have weakened Twain's overall theme. Readers should not just reject the character of Pap, but every word that comes out of his mouth. While those on the left do not reject Twain's novel for its anti-racist intent, they do object to the language he uses to convey his theme. Morrison believes that removing the book from a school's curriculum, however, is ultimately misguided:


These efforts were based, it seemed to me, on a narrow notion of how to handle

the offense Mark Twain's use of the term "nigger" would occasion for black students

and the corrosive effect it would have on white ones. It struck me as a purist yet

elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.

Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution.


Instead, Morrison argues that what is required is "a serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher," which she implies her junior high teacher was not. By choosing to not teach the book, we miss an opportunity to discuss the corrosive effects of racism not just for minority students, but for white students as well. Huck is as much a victim of his racist society as Jim. When considering the collection of ignorant, selfish, mean-spirited white characters in Twain's novel, it is not difficult to understand what the author's feelings most likely would be about the concept of "white supremacy." Twain's intent was to disturb his readers in order to awaken them.


For good reason, many schools and teachers would rather not have those difficult conversations in their classrooms. When considering the political climate in our country and the myriad ways in which those conversations could potentially go wrong, it might just be safer to choose another book to read. But avoiding the conflict does not solve the problem. As writer David Bradley says in the PBS Culture Shock program, "Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn":


People sometimes think the book causes things. It only causes things if there are

things there that are waiting to happen. If I go into a school or talk to a school

administrator who says, well, gee, this book is going to cause all kinds of trouble,

I'm going to say, you've already got trouble.


In his essay in The New York Times, Nguyen argues that the real reason people want to ban books—on both the left and the right—is because they want to avoid confronting the difficult issues contained in those books:


[These books] implicate and discomfort the adults, not the children. By banning

books, we also ban dialogues and disagreements, which children are perfectly capable

of having and which are crucial to democracy. . . . Perhaps we will eventually have

less war, less racism, less exploitation if our children can learn how to talk about

these things.


What Nguyen implies is that we need English teachers who are not only able to discuss these issues with heightened awareness and sensitivity, but who also have the courage to engage in these difficult conversations in the first place. While there are obvious risks in having these discussions, Nguyen suggests that our society will never resolve its conflicts until people are willing to accept those risks and directly confront these issues head-on.


What is perhaps even more disturbing than Pap's use of the n-word, however, is Huck's casual racism throughout the novel, especially since we consider him to be a good person at heart. But that is also Twain's point: It is extremely difficult for even the best of us to resist the norms, traditions, and expectations of our society. It is frustrating for us to watch Huck struggle with his "conscience" in deciding whether or not to help Jim. Even though he ultimately follows his heart and chooses to protect his friend, Huck never gains the maturity, self-confidence, or moral clarity to directly question his society's laws, values, and institutions.


Despite Huck's awareness and repulsion at how "[h]uman beings can be awful cruel to one another," he never questions slavery or the racism ingrained in his society. Instead, he thinks he is the one who is "wicked" for helping Jim escape, convinced that his soul is doomed to eternal damnation for not turning Jim in and doing what is "right." When Huck decides "to light out for the territory" at the end of the novel, we applaud his decision to abandon the corrupt society that has tried to "sivilize" him, but we are left feeling that his decision is as much a moral failure as it is a victory. Huck never becomes aware of his own goodness, and he never condemns the corrupt society that he is fleeing. Twain's intent is to challenge us to see what Huck cannot. But he implies that it is not enough to simply recognize the flaws in our society; we also have to have the courage to confront those issues and try to fix them.


Admittedly, people's concern in teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not just because of the n-word. Even though Twain's intent is to criticize the racist society in which Huck lives, his depiction of Jim is also problematic. In many parts of the novel, Jim is described as a minstrel figure. While one could argue that this mischaracterization is the result of Huck's ignorant first-person perspective, it is difficult to read Jim's acquiescence to Tom and Huck's foolishness at the end of the novel as anything but demeaning and dehumanizing. Even though we admire Jim for his paternal concern for Huck throughout their journey, his steadfast loyalty and personal sacrifice hardly seem realistic or warranted, especially when Huck mistreats Jim and devalues his companionship on several occasions. Jim is undoubtedly intended to be the one noble character in the book, but he does not represent the African American experience of the 19th century, nor does Twain's novel depict the true horrors of slavery that a character like Jim would have to endure. For that, we need Toni Morrison.


One could argue that reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in isolation might be a mistake, but when it is paired with a novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved, students can compare and contrast the two works to appreciate the strengths of Twain's novel while also recognizing its limitations. Beloved exposes students to 19th century African American characters who are not only realistically depicted, but also experience the horrors of slavery in a way that Twain's novel never attempts. Since Beloved is usually reserved for senior AP Literature courses, that is probably where Twain's novel belongs as well, rather than in a traditional American literature course.


The irony, of course, is that if the left and the right both had their ways, Twain's and Morrison's novels would be banned for making students "uncomfortable," whether they are Black or white. Perhaps we need to remember that the purpose of education is to challenge students to think either differently or more deeply about the subjects they are studying—to create conditions that, in the words of Cornel West, make students experience "that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their world view rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It's the shaping and forming of critical sensibility."


The best books to read are the ones that challenge our sensibilities the most. Instead of banning these books, we should embrace them and begin the challenging and difficult work of discovering what they have to teach us.




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