Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Shelving 'Huckleberry Finn' won't end racism

Students at Friends' Central School are uncomfortable with the N-word in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - a novel that Ernest Hemingway regarded as the fountainhead of American literature (" 'Huckleberry Finn' still a school target," Friday). It also discomforts me.

Cover of the illustrated “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade)” published in 1884.
Cover of the illustrated “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade)” published in 1884.Read more(Wikimedia Commons)


Removing book won't end racism

Students at Friends' Central School are uncomfortable with the N-word in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - a novel that Ernest Hemingway regarded as the fountainhead of American literature (" 'Huckleberry Finn' still a school target," Friday). It also discomforts me.

I am also discomforted when Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire abuses his wife and rapes her sister. And when Willy Loman commits suicide in Death of a Salesman. The Color Purple is troubling. And let's not even discuss the pedophilia in Vladimir Nabokov's highly regarded Lolita.

Removing Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum at Friends' Central and other schools and universities around the country will not make racism disappear. Racism will only end with the light of education. Mark Twain was educating his readers to the horrors of slavery and bigotry. Jim, while highly stereotypical, is the most humane character in the novel. The white man and the black man can be more than friends - they can be blood brothers. They just need to transcend the horrors of society.

Teachers and administrators at Friends' Central should have prefaced the reading with a history of the N-world. It is easy, however, to heed the cries of the children, as in The Crucible, and allow all works of literature to hang. Which work is next?

Walter Bowne, Cherry Hill

Friends' students can learn from Huck

A great book is one that never shuts up. A hallmark of a great book is the author's ability to prod and provoke the status quo, to enrage, to irritate the congregation, to make us uncomfortable in our complacent truths.

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does all that with the reprehensible behavior of uncouth youth. Huck smokes, lies, abhors religiosity, runs away from home - and proves a bad role model for Friends' Central students, on the surface. But somewhere in that lost boy is a heart that says his new escapee-friend, Jim, is his brother, deserving of his loyalty and friendship.

Twain blithely defies the racial stereotypes of the day (1880s) and makes Jim a spiritual father to this errant boy. Look deeper and see the bonds forming, the barriers of race and class disappearing.

Oddly enough, this controversy will prompt more citizens to denounce or praise what Ernest Hemingway called the single source of all modern American literature. Will the well-meaning censors come next for The Scarlet Letter, The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, or Shakespeare's works? Don't underestimate the students at Friends' Central - they're up to the task of refining the gold.

Joseph Lynch, St. Davids,

Students, school correct to make a change

I am an alumna of another Philadelphia-area Quaker school (Westtown, '98), who was assigned to read Huckleberry Finn in 11th grade. We were meant to understand the book's liberal use of the N-word and depictions of racism (the actions of racist people and the experience of racism by people of color) as bad exemplars, but now I wonder why we read a book about the experience of racism written by someone who didn't experience it.

Our curriculum included many books written by women and by people of color, in addition to the white male literary giants that high school students usually experience (Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dickens, Salinger).

To paint Friends' Central's change as politically correct culture gone awry is to misunderstand the values of Friends schools and processes: When the "sense of the community" is that something isn't working, action is required.

When the experience of reading Huckleberry Finn - or any other canonized novel - no longer suits the needs of the students because of concerns about reading about racism from a white writer's perspective, I support that change.

These students are continuing the proud Quaker tradition of questioning what is "canon" and how it got there, and when something no longer fits, it should be replaced by something that accomplishes the objective. Grappling with racism and American history is a literary moving target, and schools should be flexible about what is taught.

Gulielma Fager, Baltimore

A teaching moment

This is not to single out Friends' Central school, since there are many schools that have banned an American literary classic, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" because of Mark Twain's use of the N-word. Schools can't educate by banning books or pretending that we did not have a racist past. That type of action will not educate the students to avoid racism now or in the future.

If we exclude books from the curriculum because they make students uncomfortable, we will lose other great works such as Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Go Tell It on the Mountain and many more by authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Mitchell, James Baldwin, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, and Rudyard Kipling.

Students should learn that the word "negro" evolved from a description to the derogatory N-word. This is a teaching opportunity to open students' minds to great books and a culture and society with a racist past that must end. Education is the only way to put an end to racism.

Joe Gable, Warwick Township,

Leadership is 'not a popularity contest'

It is admirable that the administrators of Friends' Central would "step forward and listen to the students." It is not admirable that those administrators have prioritized appeasing their students to educating them. It is shameful that the school has dropped one of the greatest works of American literature from its curriculum out of concern for its "community costs."

I would think that exposing 11th graders to the realities of race relations a century ago, if competently handled by skilled educators, would not be a cost but a community benefit for a school that took its mission and values seriously.

The potential for learning is greatest when source material is controversial and relevant to our times. Leadership requires the backbone to make unpopular decisions grounded in institutional values. It's not a popularity contest.

Grant Grissom, Media,


From princesses to adventurers

For the reader who thinks Walt Disney's "princess" movies perpetuate stereotypes that hold women back in society ("Princess fixation: Let it go," Dec. 10), I have two words: lighten up. My two older daughters loved Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid, and danced around in their princess outfits.

Fast-forward to ages 21 and 18 - one daughter is on schedule to graduate in May as a mechanical engineer, and the other is a freshman studying for a five-year degree in international electrical engineering and Chinese. One backpacked around Australia and spent the summer working in Mozambique while diving with whale sharks. Both are spending their Christmas break backpacking around China on their own dimes.

I shielded my girls from movies that perpetuated stereotypes of female characters engaging in casual sex with no apparent consequences. Studies have shown that our impressionable teenage girls, emulating their scantily clad, promiscuous role models, are at a higher risk for teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and brokenness.

My two younger girls are now dancing around in their princess costumes, loving everything Disney. I smile, because they really are princesses, made in the image and likeness of their heavenly Father, whose kingdom awaits, and where they will find their "happily ever after."

Mary Cole, Huntingdon Valley

Make-believe vs. reality

It serves no purpose for parents to fret about their little girls identifying with a princess cartoon character while they lie to them about the existence of Santa Claus.

Avrum Fine, West Chester