Rise and fall: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

First Place (tie), Feature Writing

When Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he faced a slew of criticism. Dissenters referred to his novel as “trash” and subsequently banned it in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1885. In 1905, librarians in New York removed it from their shelves because Huck says “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” 

Half a century later, literary circles revered the book as a paramount of American literature. It forged a path for subsequent authors to employ stylistic elements previously unheard of. Following this revival, Huck Finn spent decades basking in the limelight.

Today, however, the novel has once again come under fire. According to the American Library Association (ALA), Huck Finn is number 14 on the list of the most frequently challenged books in America. Public schools and libraries frequently ban or remove Huck Finn due to its use of the n-word and dubious characterization of African-American characters. 

Joining the ranks of naysayers is the Acalanes Union High School District, which officially removed Huck Finn from the approved reading list for the 2020-2021 school year following student and parent concerns.

“We have been receiving feedback about Huck Finn over the past few years. Especially from students of color that it is a traumatizing book with overuse of the n-word,” Associate Superintendent Aida Glimme said.

Most surrounding school districts have retained the novel, including the Mount Diablo Unified School District.

Teachers received an email from Glimme informing them of the change on Nov. 13, 2019. 

   The Acalanes administration made clear that the removal of Huck Finn from the approved reading list was not a ban. 

“We are not banning the book. Kids can still check it out in the library and can read it on their own,” Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said. 

The district has debated Huck Finn for years. According to McNamara, students of color have consistently complained about the novel. Despite increased focus on equity in the past few years, these complaints persist in the district.

“When we started doing the diversity summits and started having more fish bowls that the schools have been doing with students of color and their experiences, the book perpetually comes up as a problem area,” McNamara said.

At the time of its removal from the curriculum, only about five teachers in the district still taught Huck Finn. According to English teacher Erik Honda, these teachers put careful deliberation into the choice and made efforts to surround the text with diverse content. 

“We were also talking about this broader process of diversifying our book list … getting rid of some of the old dead white men, trying to make it more female, trying to make it more people of color. Some of us, and interestingly a lot of the people who teach Huck Finn, have been doing that for a long time,” Honda said.

Following the removal of Huck Finn from the approved reading list, a group of English and history teachers met with Superintendent Dr. John Nickerson to express their concerns.

One of the primary concerns teachers raised was the precedent that removing Huck Finn will set for other content some people might find objectionalbe.

“As a social studies teacher, a giant portion of what I teach should be and is triggering for people of all races, especially some of the harsher stuff we see in history. There are really harsh things we teach in history and I think there is a good reason to teach those,” history teacher Brian Smith said. 

“A lot of those images are extremely disturbing and then on top of that both epitaphs and racist imagery would come up in historical photos,” history teacher Joseph Schottland said. “So for example placards from the sixties might use the n-word or you might see images of the Ku Klux Klan at a torch burning of the cross or you would see during World War Two there were all sorts of cartoons that portrayed the Japanese in a very racist manner. All of those I could see being upsetting to certain students and disturbing to them,” . 

Ms. Moore and Mr. Smith “took a lot of time to teach us about the history of the book and made sure that we understood the context of it,” senior Madi Risch said.

Huck Finn takes place in the Antebellum America, bringing slavery and racism to the forefront of the novel’s themes. The n-word is used over 200 times in the text, often in reference to Huck’s companion Jim, an escaped slave.

Teachers seldom teach Huck Finn without a thoughtful preface regarding historical context and the use of the n-word.    

“We previewed it by talking about historical context by watching the Ta-Nehisi Coates video in which he directly addresses white people and who has control over certain words,” English teacher Ken Derr said. 

In the aforementioned video, which specifically addresses the use of the n-word in rap music, Coates emphasizes that white people not being able to say the n-word while singing gives them a glimpse of what it means to be black.    

Despite such precautions, the use of the n-word still affects students of color.

This book affects me personally being a black female because any time the n-word is present I can only focus on my displacement in the school. The n-word is offensive and brings up a lot of painful memories for me,” senior and Black Student Union President Jaedyn Boynton said.

     In addition to the use of the n-word, many students protested  the characterization of African-American characters, notably Huck’s companion Jim. Near the end of the novel, Huck and Tom Sawyer compose an elaborate plot to “free” Jim, despite the fact that he is already free. Tom withholds this life-changing information from Jim so he can essentially play make-believe. 

Despite the controversy, come underclassmen lament that they will not be able to study Huck Finn in the classroom. 

“I was really looking forward to reading it,” sophomore Aidan Shvo said. 

Although it has the potential to make students uncomfortable, many consider Huck Finn to be a pivotal point in American literature. 

“Once you ban one, are you opening the floodgates?” Derr asked. ”Or is this an isolated text with a history of controversy?” 

A majority of students said Huck Finn promoted discussions about race in the classroom. 

We talked about different ways that we can help be part of a solution to issues surrounding race in our community. The unit as a whole was very eye-opening and important for us to learn, especially since we are rarely exposed to the topic living where we do,” senior Erin Hemmenway said.

A few students and teachers at Acalanes have compared the removal of Huck Finn to an erasure of history. 

It’s kind of like denying that that history ever existed,” freshman Matthew Colvin said. 

The district hopes that, despite controversy, the removal of Huck Finn will end up being a step towards a diversified curriculum within the district. 

“I want all of our students to walk out of Acalanes, Miramonte, Campolindo, and Las Lomas having had a super positive experience in our schools and I want all of our students to say, ‘I was totally represented by the curriculum and the literature we read. It reflected a positive image back to me about who I am and the contributions of my people, my culture, my religion, my values. I was seen by my teachers,’ and that, unfortunately, is not the experience all our kids are having. I think this gets us closer,” McNamara said.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.