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.”


“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?

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The word and all it carries.

My son and I live in the space where Huck and Tom were called into existence. He’s nine and quickly approaching age that the boys were in Mark Twain’s stories. So it only seems appropriate that I’d read the great novels to him here at Quarry Farm. But how do I explain the struggles and cruelty, the dehumanizing hate and ignorance, the misguided belief and responsibility that is all packed into that one word—a box that will bust open, I know, the first moment it reluctantly passes over my lips as I read.

When I was young I was inadvertently armed with that word—definitely old enough to know better, but I didn’t. I just assumed it ranked somewhere near the “F-word” on the scale of words I don’t say in front of my mom. I was sitting at the lunch table with my little school buddies and I flung it out like it was funny, like just the word itself was a punch line. The table went quiet. They all looked down and through the tops of their eyes, at me, then over at Matt. His brown face darkened with red and his eyes shot me with shock, pain, anger and a cutting finality all in a split second. He grabbed his books and he left. He never came back to the lunch table again for the rest of the year. My apology later in the locker room was a jittery, stuttering, failure that he didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I never saw him again. Yes, we were in classes together and passed in the hallway but all I saw was a stoic black face looking straight ahead. When I see that same look on people of color today, I can’t help but think about it; it’s probably not a coincidence.

The real tragedy is that I didn’t even mean it in any malicious way. I was merely insensitive and ignorant. I was irresponsible. I think Matt took it so hard because I was nice and shy and smiled a lot. He had known me for years and probably trusted me as someone wasn’t a racist, then out of nowhere I let that word fly. It probably made him question his sense of judgment. Is everyone a racist?

More than twenty-five years later I still think about this nearly everyday. How do I prevent my son from making the same mistake? For him it’s not even the deeper problem of unlearning obvious prejudice that has been conditioned by school, church, and society, as Huck chose to—and as an unfortunate segment of our population still needs to. It’s the conveyance of responsibility and empathy and the willingness to stay open and teachable. It’s the awareness that society and culture still place those biases in our heads like air, invisible and everywhere, and as a white man raising a little white boy the responsibility to know them and correct them as they arise is as important as any lesson I teach him. But how do I convey all this to a nine-year-old boy who displays, as I try not to cringe, more traits of a young, outspoken, mischievous, Tom Sawyer than of the sensitive and thoughtful Huck Finn? How the hell should I know?

Again, jittery and stuttering—apparently my default—I explained the word he will soon hear me read over and over. My language smoothed out and I tried to be objective. I told him that this word was not mine or his or any other white person’s word and outside of this story you’ll never hear me say it. I told him it was the ugliest and most hurtful word in the English language.

“Worse than the F—word?”

“Not even in the same league.” I said in a low gravely whisper that pulled his attention closer.

I think he got it. His stare was intense and earnest as he lay tucked into his little bed with a look of impending punishment. Too much? In this case too much is better than too little. Too much may not be possible.

As I began to read and I settled into the best Hal Holbrook drawl I could muster he began to lighten. See, a mischievous boy will quickly recognize a fellow artist when he sees one. He fell into Hannibal and the “hymn to boyhood.” I had to explain much of the language, unfamiliar to a 9-year-old in 2017, but as I got into the flow of reading, he got into the flow of hearing. I just hope he heard everything.

Weeks later when I was picking him up from school he had a story to tell me. He started off jittery and stuttering: hyper, not scared.

“You know Zach in my class? Not my cousin Zach, but the Zach from my class.” (He clarifies this every time….I get it.)


“He said that word today! The word from Mark Twain (I know, one step at a time.) He called Mariah that right to her face! I got up and said ‘You can’t say that!’ and told the lunch lady. He got suspended.”

Most of the time the job of parenting haunts me with two questions. First, How am I screwing this kid up? I have a long list of unfavorable answers. And second, What kind of world am I leaving him with? I rarely have even one good answer. I wish that Matt hadn’t had to experience my ignorance way back then, but at least it helped Mariah see that she wasn’t alone and she didn’t have to leave the lunch table— and I hope she never adopts that stoic stare.

As for those two haunting questions of parenting, with about the frequency of Haley’s comet you get ‘em both right.

“I Killed Thirty-Eight Persons”: Sam Clemens & The Sioux Wars, 1862-1876

EDITOR’S NOTE: Atsushi Sugimura’s provocative and nuanced reading of an under-appreciated tale was part of the Mark Twain & Native Americans Panel at The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies in August of 2017.  

In this presentation, I’d like to examine the ways Sam Clemens makes reference, both directly and indirectly, to the marginalized tragedies of Native Americans in “The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut.” One of Clemens’s earliest and most illuminating explorations of human conscience, the story was written in January 1876, immediately after he finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We can find in this story powerful images of slavery. Clemens even identifies, obliquely, the narrator’s “genteel tormentor” Aunt Mary with his wife Olivia by portraying Aunt Mary as an ardent but powerless abolitionist of what she calls “hateful slavery of tobacco” at the end of the narrative.

Interestingly, Clemens also expresses in this tale his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans. In a pivotal passage that reveals the identity of the dwarf, Clemens highlights the narrator’s guilt over what the dwarf calls a “peculiarly mean and pitiful act of yours toward a poor ignorant Indian in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains” that was perpetrated in some “winter of eighteen hundred and—.”

As is well known, Mark Twain was involved in the violently racist discourse targeted at Native Americans, the Plains Indians in particular, in his earlier writings, including the notorious “The Noble Red Man.” In this passage, the narrator prevents the dwarf’s whole disclosure of the actual date of the incident. What is Clemens hinting at here? I suspect that he could possibly be suggesting the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864.

We can draw a parallel between Mark Twain’s violent commentary on Native Americans around 1870 and the rhetoric of extermination that was quite popular among Euro-American settlers in and nearby the wilds of the Rocky Mountains during the Civil War era. Such discourse, in fact, provided a significant excuse for Colonel John Chivington and his troops, who carried out the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado on the cold morning of November 29th, 1864—arguably one of the most “mean and pitiful” attacks perpetrated by the US Army against a Native American village. From this notorious massacre, Clemens would later gain inspiration, at least partly, for Hank Morgan’s catastrophic Battle of the Sand-Belt in Connecticut Yankee.

Clemens expresses, briefly but unmistakably, his suppressed guilt over the past sufferings of Native Americans in “Carnival of Crime.”

Around the time Clemens composed the story, in January 1876, Ulysses Grant was about to launch a new punitive campaign against the Plains Indians in pursuit of a gold mine found in Black Hills, Dakota. In December 1875, Grant issued an ultimatum to the Native Americans to surrender by January 31st, 1876. On January 24th, Clemens read “Carnival of Crime” at the meeting of the Monday Evening Club of Hartford. It was just a week before the deadline. Historian John S. Gray observes that the war was nothing else but the US government’s “violation of a solemn treaty designed to permit further violations of the same treaty.”

At the end of the story, the narrator kills the dwarf and turns himself into a “man without a conscience, ” who happily performs his “Carnival of Crime.” We can detect the faint shadows of a Twainian notion of Indianness in the passages underlined below. The narrator brags about his unlawful acquisition of a cow, which is suggested as “not thoroughbred”—in other words, mixed-blood. This is not the first time that Clemens’s narrator obtains other people’s livestock in a criminal way. In chapter 20 of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain tells of his imagined past experiences with the Noble Red Man, in which he once “helped them steal cattle.” In addition, at the end of the story, the narrator announces a special sale of human bodies for medical experts. This would remind us of what Injun Joe, that “murderin’ half-breed,” was doing with Dr. Robinson in St. Petersburg’s graveyard.

I’d like to put special emphasis on the following fact: the narrator starts off his “Carnival of Crime” with a vengeful act of mass murder in Connecticut, the native land that was acquired by Yankees. He says, “I killed thirty-eight persons during the first two weeks—all of them on account of ancient grudges.” Clemens provides no narrative context for this mysterious number of victims, but I suspect that the number of victims, thirty-eight, echoes the tragic consequence of the US-Dakota War of 1862. In December 1862, in the wake of a mass uprising of starving Dakota Indians in Minnesota, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of thirty-nine Dakota Sioux – one of whom was reprieved afterward. The hanging was carried out on December 26th in Mankato, Minnesota. It was six days before the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and five weeks before Sam Clemens began to call himself Mark Twain. According to legal historian Carol Chomsky, the military commission “tried the Sioux for the wrong crimes” and thereby unwarrantedly victimized them in the largest mass execution in US history. On the night of the execution, the bodies of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians were dug out and taken away by a group of doctors, including Dr. William Mayo, the founder of the now world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

It is worth noting that in a letter written on February 17th, three weeks after his recitation of “Carnival of Crime,” Clemens requested Elisha Bliss send Fanny Kelly’s Narrative of My Captivity among the Sioux Indians to the National Soldiers’ Home. At the end of the first American edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer appears an advertisement for Kelly’s book, whose opening paragraph refers to “the horrible massacres in Minnesota in 1862” that resulted in the execution of the thirty-eight Sioux Indians.

In 1881, Twain, who called himself a “Connecticut Yankee by adoption,” appropriated in his speech the suffering image of vanished Indians for the indirect expression of his perceived sense of deracination from the South as well as alienation from the elite society of the East, ventilating at the same time his pent-up anger against the cruel deeds of what he calls the “Mayflower tribe.” And Clemens’s continued interest in the Sioux Indians and their “ancient grudges” manifests itself again in the manuscript of “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians.” Its narrative plot develops around the “private grudge” of a vengeful Native American, whose tribal identity is confirmed by the hero Brace Johnson as a Sioux.

In his last years, Clemens muses on these events in the manuscript of “Letters from the Earth.” Clemens’s Satan here expresses, to some degree, his sympathy with the long-tormented Sioux Indians, seeing that the Native people finally “duplicated” the atrocities of what he calls “conscienceless God” in 1862 in order to wreak vengeance upon their oppressor—the United States.

The details of “Carnival of Crime” interact with complex layers of national memories regarding justice and injustice. The marginalized history of American Indians are appropriated by Clemens, in a subtle but provocative way, for the sketch’s singular autobiographical construction—as a symbolic site of identification and displacement. Clemens’s reference to the US-Dakota War in “Letters from the Earth” would provide a relevant historical context to reconsider the bifocal way in which Clemens voiced—and muted—his suppressed anxiety and desire as a self-exiled white southerner in 1876.

This also allows us, I believe, to revisit the autobiographical implication of the baffled revenge plot and tragic death of Injun Joe—the ultimate source of Tom Sawyer’s “troubled conscience and his fears,” who sometimes was seen by critics as the “shadow self”—or the “devil double”—of Mark Twain’s celebrated alter ego.


Atsushi Sugimura is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tokyo, a Visiting Scholar at University of California, Berkeley, and a recipient of the Ito Foundation USA FUTI Scholarship.