Teaching 'Huckleberry' continues to be a challenge for schools, society

In the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the title character and Jim complete a harrowing journey down the Mississippi River, but today their story continues to hit snags and obstacles.

The book has been banned frequently since its publication in 1885. At first, libraries censored it because author Mark Twain didn't use proper English, then because Huck's cheating and lying made him a poor role model for boys, said Craig Hotchkiss, manager of education programs at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.

Since the late 1950s, the novel has been pulled from school shelves across the country because of objections to racial stereotypes and Twain's use of the word "nigger" more than 200 times.

A year ago, the school system in Manchester, Conn., began navigating the choppy waters of teaching Twain's most admired and vilified book. School officials temporarily removed the novel from the approved list of books at Manchester High School after a parent complained. The book, according to the complaint, is demeaning to blacks, and, therefore, unfit to be taught in school.

Now after months of study, the school system is training 11 high school teachers in how to teach the novel in a broader context that includes discussions of Twain's era, satire, white privilege, diversity and social change.

"Huckleberry Finn" uses the colloquial speech of the 19th century to tell the story of a white runaway boy whose view of blacks evolves during his travels with an escaped slave, Jim. Experts say Twain intended the book as satire, poking fun at racial stereotypes, but some African-Americans find the book offensive.

"It is a complicated, problematic and sometimes painful book to read," said Kerry Driscoll, chairwoman of the English department at St. Joseph College in West Hartford.

Huck spouts the stereotypes about blacks he has heard growing up, but as he travels with Jim, he learns that all his assumptions are wrong.

"The book is about transcending racism on a one-on-one basis through the development of a friendship," Driscoll said. "What better book to read."

Hotchkiss, Driscoll and the Rev. John Selders Jr., pastor of Amistad United Church of Christ in Hartford, have provided the training in Manchester. Driscoll has told the teachers how Twain developed more progressive views about black people after he married Olivia Langdon, whose family had ties to the abolitionist movement.

Teachers are being presented with a range of views about the book, Hotchkiss said, from the idea that it's "the worst kind of racist claptrap" to outright satire.

"I don't think you can read it as anything other than satire, but it's very subtle," he said. "Teachers will have to point out the subtleties of the book."

They can also teach it alongside the history of the time, using slave narratives by abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and others to illustrate the brutality of slavery and the subtle resistance of blacks to Jim Crow laws, Hotchkiss said.

It's important to remember, Selders said, that African-Americans do not have just one view of the word.

"I'm old school. If I never heard that word again, I'd be pleased," he said. "But there are those in the hip-hop community who say they have reclaimed the word and made it into a term of affection."

As an African-American, Selders said he's not entirely sure the book should be taught in high schools because some students may not be mature enough to handle it.

"But it's doable if a teacher has the skill, training and comfort level, and then the conversation could be extremely pivotal and inspiring for students," he said.

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