I have to say I have really been enjoying this Banned Books Week. Reading some of the reasons why these books are banned has given me a good laugh, though the reality of such stringent censorship is sobering. It’s also led to some really great conversations about books and that’s why I’m here! Thanks bloggers, you’ve come through again in spades! Now to my last post for the week. The granddaddy of all banned books…
(Disclaimer: Like the novel in question there may be instances of the n-word in this review. It is never intended with the purpose of insulting or casting aspersions at African Americans)
Reasons for ban: Coarse language, racial stereotypes and use of the word “nigger”
I’ve never been able to get my head around why the people who try to ban a book so frequently miss the entire point of the book to begin with. Interestingly, the book was first banned in 1885, because it was considered “trash”, because it depicted a friendship between a black man and a white child. Now it is banned because it’s considered racist.
Some argue that the book stereotypes African Americans, portraying them as ignorant or helpless. I find that interesting, I always saw Jim as a man of dignity and deep feeling. Far from being ignorant or stupid, he was a man who had to walk a precarious tightrope. He would be punished for being uppity if he acted as though he knew more than a white person, even if that person was a small, uneducated, poor boy. He was in constant danger, but he showed kindness, loyalty and empathy for Huck. Truth be told, he could also be punished for showing he felt pity for a white child. His friendship with Huck led to the boys growth in understanding and helping him to come to the realization that slavery was wrong and should be fought. This sentiment is beautifully shown when Huck, contemplating whether to turn Jim in to the authorities, thinks about the rule of the time he lived in. Assisting Jim was not just against the law, it was a sin. Huck, however, decides “Alright then, I’ll go to hell!” This shows admirable bravery on Huck’s part, but it is the friendship of Jim that helps him to reach this conclusion.
Another problem is language. The language is rough, coarse and Mr. Twain does resort to using words that were common in his time, but which are odious and offensive now. Language is of the utmost importance in this book. As Twain said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” The language shocks you. It grips you by the collar and makes you pay attention. Some recent copies of the book have been edited to remove the n-word and other offensive terms. If this language is offensive, then it should prompt more discussion. We don’t build awareness by muting the sound, like a speaker packed in cotton balls. The message becomes indistinct and meaningless.
The language is carefully chosen by Mr. Twain to highlight the injustice and prejudice of otherwise moral people. Imagine the horror of people in the 1800’s the first time they read Huck’s statement about going to hell. It would have knocked their socks off. How sad if they had watered that sentiment down.
It is very clear here whose racial side Twain is on. Similarly when Aunt Sally asks if anyone was hurt in a reported riverboat explosion, and Huck himself answers “No’m. Killed a nigger,” she replies, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.” The whole force of the passage lies in casual acceptance of the African American’s dehumanised status, even by Huck, whose socially-inherited language and way of thinking stands firm despite all he has learnt in his journey down-river of the humanity, warmth and affection of the escaped slave Jim – the person who truly acts as a father to him. – Peter Messent, The Guardian
Certain words are used to help you understand how prejudice works. Isn’t that valuable information? It is particularly helpful in the school setting. Thankfully, many educators and librarians do recognize how vital a piece of the Literary Canon this book is. I don’t think anyone will be able to completely silence it’s voice.
Read Huckleberry Finn. Read all these banned books. Learn more and then keep learning more, forever and ever, amen.
Bonus Link: The complete article by Mr. Messent can be found at the Guardian website.
Song for this book: River in the Rain from the musical Big River based on Huckleberry Finn