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Don't underestimate a teacher's problem with 'Huckleberry Finn'

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Karen Morrill
Karen Morrill is a teacher at Woodbury High School.
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I just finished teaching "Huck Finn" with my American Lit juniors and am just starting to teach it to my AP juniors. 

Orchestrating productive dialogue about slavery, loaded language and racism takes a fair degree of skill and patience, as well as the ability to compel students to see the bigger picture.

 But no matter how adroitly I teach the book, no matter how carefully I focus on both the biting satirical frame narration of Twain and the unsophisticated, impressionable, awkward, undeveloped perspective of Huck, the N-word triggers a 21st century response.

And no, it's not like we are listening to rap. Consider the context -- white middle-aged teacher interprets 19th century classic to impressionable, awkward adolescents. I don't say the N-word; I self-censor, which is quite different from publishing the novel with the N-word replaced with the word "slave."

It is a choice I make because the N-word triggers an emotional response, undeniably distracting and disturbing. I wrote a letter to the editor in 2006 about teaching Huck Finn in which I compared the N-word with the C-word: If I were to teach a text in which that word appeared more than 200 times, you bet parents would be up in arms.

Sometimes I do play an audio version of the book in my classes, and the N-word is used by the narrator. However, coming from the speakers, read in an actor's expert presentation of the text, the word seems to lose most of its modern impact, seasoning the language the way I imagine Twain intended: to reveal just how ingrained, how justified, how much a part of day to day life it was to simultaneously label and disparage people, who were in fact -- from the moment of their birth to their last breath -- prisoners.

Don't underestimate kids in the classroom. They can deal with conflict, ambiguity, and controversy. But do expect most teachers will struggle to teach Huck Finn in a way that doesn't make discussion of race an add-on to the curriculum, rather than an ongoing part of our literary and real-world experience.  

There are also other books, in my mind just as brilliant, that can deliver the goods without the constant cringe factor. "Fences" by August Wilson comes to mind, as do his other plays. "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston, and the poetry of Langston Hughes are on the same literary footing as "Huck Finn." These books, written by African-Americans, put the voice of the oppressed front and center, loud and clear -- tellers of  tales, fully human.

The debate about "Huck Finn" and the N-word has just been stirred up again. Twain scholar Alan Gribben has whitewashed Twain's text, replacing the N-word with the word "slave" in a new edition due to be released next month. 

From the responses reported in the media, most seem to think the new edition is uncalled for; some suggest it defiles Twain's classic. I suggest that if you have never tried to teach "Huck Finn" to teens in a high school environment and facilitate productive, paradigm-shifting debates centered on perspective, tone and text, you might want to think deeply about your stance. The question isn't black and white.

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Karen Morrill, a teacher at Woodbury High School, is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.