In the recurring debate over whether to censor “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for high school students, I stand firmly on the side of the traditionalist bookworms, who so valiantly preach the importance of literature as a lens through which to view history. Surely, studying any society’s cultural output provides a window into history—into the intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses of human beings living in a different time or place. For this reason, students should be encouraged to study the arts—visual, architectural, and musical, as well as literary—from a breadth of societies, and in a multitude of eras.
Some proponents of censorship have argued that high-school-aged students are not mature enough to understand Huck Finn from a literary perspective, and dismiss it because they believe black students in particular will find the “n-word” offensive. Let’s put that fairy tale to rest. Most teenagers possess a level of sophistication that allows them to distinguish the context in which that word is used. Young teenagers typically hear the word repeatedly in popular rap lyrics. Many civil rights activists, like Al Sharpton, decry the use of the word by blacks because they regard it as self-deprecating, and because it can be used to excuse the malicious use of the word by bigoted whites. However, blacks who use the word to refer to themselves and their racially connected peers understand the implicit undercurrent of racism associated with white use of the n-word. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” is the perfect vehicle by which teachers can lead a discussion about the historical background of that apparent dichotomy.
On the other hand, the censorship police seem intent on revisionist history that fails to connect the dots between the history of racism in America and contemporary black culture. Some conservative white school boards itching to teach that the Civil War was a battle between northerners who wanted a strong union and southerners who favored states’ rights seem to prefer that no reference to the institution of slavery—historical or literary—be included in high school curricula. They would have Mark Twain’s classic banned not only from English class but also from the school library. Those willing to concede slavery as a matter of fact seem eager to present it as nothing more than a system designed to keep southern agriculture economically sound, not an institution that had horrific consequences for the human beings enslaved or the society that fostered the abuse of black men, women, and children. It should be no surprise that these purveyors of revisionist history would wish to edit Mark Twain’s masterpiece, substituting the racially charged word with “slave.”
Of course, those who would rewrite the historical truth are the same revisionist zealots who would either eliminate evolution from the science curriculum or have it taught as a theory side by side with creationism. It is unfortunate that those who deem themselves defenders of morality in education seek to ignore or rewrite the very literature that reflects the social mores of bygone eras. It does not come as a shock that they would cite the inability of students to handle the truth as the reason for protecting them from it, but they could not be more wrong. Students can understand context, and use it to ascertain a greater meaning. It is the revisionists who ought to look in the mirror if they want to see who can’t handle the truth.
Ozols is a member of the class of 2014.