Friday, September 30, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Five

To celebrate the last day of Banned Books Week here on the blog, I'd like to feature probably the most challenged book in American history.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I have to confess that I only read Huck Finn for the first time last year.  Hard to believe, I know!  I never had to read it in school.  I don't think that was because the book was banned at my school, since I had to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that contains just as many "offensives" as Huck Finn.  But I went thirty-something years without ever reading Huck Finn and decided last year that enough was enough.

It's a great book.  It's funny!  I love being reminded that people in the 19th century did indeed have a sense of humor...and Mark Twain certainly did.  If you haven't read it, you need to rectify that situation right away.

So, the main challenge to Huck Finn is its excessive use of the n-word.  Although Huck Finn was published in America in 1885, the story takes place around 1840 in a deep antebellum South.  Needless to say, America was a very different place back then.  And that is the fundamental problem with the challenge to Huck Finn; it is being judged by today's mores instead of the mores of the world in which it was written.

If you asked a hundred people whether they want an historically accurate depiction of life in the South in 1840, or a whitewashed version of it, most people would say an accurate depiction.  But then you plunk down Huck Finn in front of them, and watch those same people balk at the casual use of the n-word throughout the book.  The truth is, people don't want to face the dark corners of our history.

They don't want to think about the fact that one third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, including its main author, Thomas Jefferson.  Twelve of our presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives (including several when they were in the White House).  

They don't want to think about the fact that the United States of America was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, after most European, South American and some Eastern nations had already done so.  They want to forget that slavery was still legal in many Northern states until as late as 1827, and that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it illegal to harbor escaped slaves in any state.

They don't want to think about the fact that a major theme in another beloved American novel, Gone With the Wind, is a justification of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.  They'd rather focus on the love story between Scarlett & Rhett than admit that what Rhett was doing when he went to clean out the "riffraff" in the woods was Klan activity.

None of these facts are pretty.  All of them are from the dark recesses of our nation's history, and I can understand why it is sometimes easier to excise any mention of them from a book, rather than get into a difficult conversation about the mistakes of our past.  But the fact is, these things happened.  And the only way we can correct our mistakes is to learn from them, not deny them.

But a lot of people don't want to travel that difficult path. 

And so, they use their children as an excuse not to do so.  "Children can't read this!" they cry.  "What if they read it and think it's okay to talk like that?"

Well, parents and teachers, here's the simple solution to that.  You hold the book up and say, "Back then, it was okay to use the n-word.  Today it's not.  End of story."

But that, apparently, is asking too much.  It's too difficult of a conversation to have, I guess.  Because a new edition of Huck Finn appeared earlier this year with all the offensive words edited out.

That, my friends, is censorship.  Pure and simple.

And it is a short walk from censorship to building a bonfire in the town square and tossing any "objectionable" book into the flames, their stories lost to us forever.

Thank you for celebrating Banned Books Week with me.  Now go read a banned book! 

"Every burned book enlightens the world." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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