When Will WE Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Duluth Public School District in Minnesota recently decided to drop two novels from their curriculumAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. Jocelyn Chadwick, current President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and a former Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Educationis both an expert on secondary education in the U.S. and an acclaimed scholar of Mark Twain, having authored The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry FinnShe takes this opportunity to discuss the importance of these controversial texts to contemporary students. 

“I use the word nigger, and I don’t think much about it. So, I want to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for myself so that I can understand the history around the word and think about it again for myself.” – Student, Capitol Preparatory Magnet School (2017)

That we as adult citizens of the United States of America yet find ourselves seemingly inextricably enmeshed in the morass that is racism continues to be disturbing. Of course, parents and we who educate children, especially English language arts teachers, are not only cognizant of troubling social issues, including racism and America’s dark history, but also other isms and the accompanying violence that are increasingly prevalent. Both Minnesota’s Michael Cary and Stephan Witherspoon articulated these concerns most recently within the context of students’ reading two texts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird:

“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”

and

“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”

At present, because of the social and political and economic upheavals our children have and continue to experience, our English language arts classes — PreK-16 — are the places and spaces where our children can explore, question, analyze, and evaluate serious issues, troubling moments, and sensitive topics, particularly, the issue of RACE.

Interestingly, some who would censor such texts as Huck Finn and Mockingbird often overlook what lies at the core of just how such texts foment conversations and thoughts which have populated our children’s’ minds. Difference and/or the issue of Other permeate students’ minds and experiences; ethnicity including race, comprises a portion but decidedly not the whole of challenges and concerns our children encounter and confront every single day as they head out to school, to community activities, to play, to interact on social media, even to interact with family members.

As a life-long educator and Mark Twain scholar who remains in schools across our country from elementary to college, my question always is, Where are the students’ voices? I agree with Mr. Cary and Mr. Witherspoon that our nation’s children have been surrounded by the dis-comfortable discourse they encounter online, on television, in their communities, and on the streets of America. All too often, our nation’s children see, watch, hear, read, sometimes sing to and/or dance to songs with the history-laden and blood-soaked word nigger, or some variant iteration of it.

Rather than our hiding away and pushing down exploration, analysis, research, and open-discussion, our nation’s English language arts classrooms are safe spaces that do not, as Freire says “deposit” information into students’ minds; rather, today, our ELA classrooms and educators create sustained learning and exploratory opportunities for our students—instructional opportunities where students’ voices and perspectives are encouraged and honed for both daily living and college and career. The literature our students experience from fairy and folk tales to sobering fiction and nonfiction — all allow them to peer deeply into life’s troubles, challenges, discomforts, decisions and consequences, encountering noble and ignoble individuals and actions, but from a safe distance. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are no different from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Beloved, Othello, Merchant of Venice or Douglass’ Monthly, to cite a very few formative and critical texts. All are sensitive, all controversial, all totally reflective of the world then and now: verisimilitude. And all contain some form of sensitive, historical usage.

Just what are the consequences of our not fighting on behalf of our children to keep these texts in front of our children? For me the answer to my ever-present query emerges with an interesting juxtaposition between Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. I frequently reference these two speeches:

Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech to the citizens of Rochester, NY “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Mark Twain’s 1907 speech to The American Society in London on “The Day We Celebrate.” I frequently recommend this pairing to teachers and also share myself with students because Douglass and Twain, without conscious intent, literally recreate a rhetorical call and response, using compelling, written prose. Douglass states his ire and the irony of his being asked to address the import fellow Abolitionists (most of whom are white) place on celebrating a national holiday that neither champions him nor his kind. He concludes the sobering and blistering speech with his call:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. . . . The conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.

55 years after Douglass’ speech, Mark Twain would galvanize an audience with his response:

. . . The Fourth of July, and the one which you are celebrating now, born, in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776—that is English too. It is not American. . . . We have, however, one Fourth of July which is absolutely our own and that is the great proclamation issued forty years ago by that great American . . . Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s proclamation, which not only set the black slave free, but set the white man free also. The owner was set free from the burden and offence, that sad condition of things where he was in so many instances a master and owner of slaves he did not want to be. That proclamation set them all free.

Provided even these short excerpts, our students today through their unique lenses hear, see, and reflect quite differently from students of the 20th century: not just equality but equity; not just equity and equality, but both set within an ethical and universal context.

We now exist in an environ where those who should know better regularly give verbal life to such limiting and, yes, racist ideas that if one is not of the specific color, then one cannot write about a different race or ethnicity. Just what does such a stance express to our children of the 21st century? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Henry James, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jacqueline Woodson, Jimmy Santiago Baca—and so many, many more have shown us this position is one devoid not only substance but also and more importantly, such positions lack Equity, Equality, Ethics. Though many of our children may indeed be challenged and constricted by economic class, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, religious practice, as well as other social and personal contexts — regardless of ethnicity and because of it — our consciously limiting access to and for them through the literature experienced in ELA classes is faulty logic and incredibly dangerous.

Students today across our country view works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird quite differently than did we, than did our parents, or even our grandparents. Students today view these works as informative because they find themselves ensconced in the 24/7 turmoil Mr. Cary and Witherspoon cite, across racial lines. The classroom, especially the ELA classroom, provides a safe distance through which our nation’s children — all of them — can inquire, examine, and make meaning through their lenses — not ours.

The one and primary caveat about which we ELA educators must remain ever-vigilant: the imperative of better preparing educators who feel they are not wholly prepared for such instruction. We who can help must help. We must help because these books and others like them are important. We dare not censor history, not even its language, for when we do, we sanitize it and our children’s Memory fades forever. How can they learn and move forward into their future without sustaining and always holding onto their and our Memory?

Have any Questions or Comments? 

10 comments on “When Will WE Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z

Our using this blog to begin and sustain an earnest conversation would be amazing, and we could use this conversation to broaden our understanding and knowledge of the subject of language, the power to words, voice, authorial impact, the list is endless.

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Mary Torgoman

I would like to ask the adults who want to ban Huckleberry Finn if they have read the book.
I would ask the same question for any other book a parent objected to.
There is no way to communicate if the answer to the question is no. As anyone who loves this book knows, Twain was using dialect . If the language was racist why does Jim use It? Twain tells his reader that he was using a number of dialects. That is one reason Hemingway says All American literature comes from Mark Twain and this book. It is wrong to keep students from reading this book.

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Mary, thanks for your insight. We still use a number of dialects, and unfortunately, a variety of racial, cultural, religious, and other slurs. What I admire about the literature that emanated from Mark Twain, as well as those who would follow his thematic threads and style, lies with his and their “truth to power,” using words, sentences, images and characters to reflect us back to us. Often what we see, is not always what we want others to see or hear. Monumental texts like Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Rudolf Anaya, those from the ancient past, and so many, many others stand the test of time and last because they still “speak” to us.

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Kirk H.

A thoughtful and important commentary. My only quibble is with formatting it in italics, which makes it very difficult to read. There is a reason Helvetica rules on digital media.

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Matt Seybold

Kirk –

Do you mind telling me what type of browser you are using? The article is not formatted in italics, but for some reason may be appearing that way in some browsers. Obviously, we’d like to fix this, so any info you can provide would be helpful.

Thanks for reading!

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Donald McAndrew

I think the language in Huck is used as the reason to ban the book, but I do not think that is the real motivation behind the people who seek the bans.

I think the real reason Huck has been targeted since first being published has to do with the overall moral of the book, which is: listen to your heart and what you know is right despite what society might be promoting.

The first town to ban Huck Finn was the abolitionist hub of Concord, Massachusetts.

Uncle Tom’s cabin was banned in the south but championed in the north. Huck has been fighting off bans both North and South from the start.

When an author gets censored across all the invisible lines, they have hit the bulls-eye.

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Great last sentence, Donald. The library in Concord banned the book because of language, class and, morals—or perceived lack thereof. The Topeka Daily Capital 21 March 1885 published the article about the banning. I can’t attach it here, but it is interesting reading, and I use it with students and teachers. That Mark Twain and other American writers who followed him relied on the Other (Jim and Huck, and yes, Tom, too) to drive home the message and resounding, universal theme of the novel is profound. Even more profound is with our continued grappling with the issues laid out in this work. I can proudly say that I am heartened by how 21st century students read and drill into this work, making it their own and using it to grapple with and through issues prescient to them, issues including and transcending the Black/White ethnic lines older readers solely remember. Also, that the novel has no “ribboned-ending” also catches the sight-line of today’s students.

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Susan van Druten

Dr. Chadwick,

I am an 11th grade English teacher from Duluth, Minnesota. We English teachers learned just last Wednesday, March 21, the extent of the parent complaints. According to curriculum director Dr. Michael Cary there were 5-6 complaints made in the four years he has been in our district.

We would like to invite you to come to Duluth and speak to Duluthians. Please contact me if you are interested.

Susan van Druten

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Susan, I am happy to come to Duluth. I sent you an email and await further correspondence. I always want to help.

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Susan van Druten

Thank you for your response. We really need your help. Our English department is excited to have you come to Duluth. We are working on raising the funds since we don’t think our District will be helping us meet with you. But we are adamant.

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