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?

Twain for Teachers: Huckleberry Finn in an Era of Resurgent Bigotry

A recent issue of NCTE’s English Journal includes a Special Section on “Teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The editors open the section by acknowledging it “may offend some readers” and predict “There will be backlash. So be it.” In the spirit of embracing the debate, the journal has made the essays in this section free to access and download. I encourage you to do so.

In the central essay of the Special Section, to which all the others respond, Peter Smagorinsky’s argument rests on the production of empathy for “Black students who have experienced the term n***** as vile and vituperative over the course of their lives,” particularly given the urgency of “racial conflict generated by shocking instances of African American men, women, youth, and children being arrested, beaten, and shot dead by police.”

Dr. Smagorinsky, a Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia, is not the first to introduce Huckleberry Finn into heated contemporary debates about microaggressions and trigger warnings. One of my own students, Ashley Fredericks, traced a record of transparently alienating and stigmatizing pedagogical approaches to the novel, as well as censoring backlash against these approaches, from the early 20th century to the present in the essay which won last year’s Mark Twain Writing Contest and is forthcoming from the Chemung Historical Journal. Her essay is evidence, as Jocelyn Chadwick points out in her contribution to English Journal, that “we can learn much from students if we listen and allow ourselves to learn along with them in lieu of our wanting to shut down, close out, and shun uncomfortable conversations.”

What makes Dr. Smagorinsky’s essay original is how he reframes the existing debate in a manner designed to alienate, stigmatize, and offend a whole new constituency of readers. The essay’s title, “Huck and Kim: Would Teachers Feel the Same if the Language Were Misogynist?” operates as a trigger warning, as does the section heading for “A Very Offensive Pedagogical Exercise,” in which Dr. Smagorinsky revises several passages from Twain’s novel to replace racism with misogyny. Jim becomes Kim; him becomes her; hanging becomes beating; and n***** becomes c***. The purpose of this exercise is to give white women, presumed to be the plurality of secondary school teachers assigning the novel, “a small taste of how it must feel for a lot of Black students to be required to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Of course, as the editors of English Journal clearly anticipate, one cannot help but wonder how anybody benefits from a white man chastising white women about their lack of empathy in November 2016. Dr. Smagorinsky’s essay, like so many episodes in the 2016 campaign and beyond, frames persecuted groups as competitors for attention and pity. It invites us to compare police brutality to sexual assault, lynching to domestic abuse, and if you are, like Dr. Smagorinsky and myself, a white man, to be grateful once again that we can never be submitted to any such demand for empathy, because our experiences, at least according to his definition, provide no grounds for it.

It is no coincidence that all the respondents to Dr. Smagorinsky’s provocative essay are women of color and thus, according to his presumptions, twice-triggeredNor, I suspect, is it coincidence that they all argue in defense, not necessarily of Huckleberry Finn, nor of Mark Twain, but of teachers who are increasingly being told, as Chadwick puts it, what they “should or should not be allowed to teach.”

In “The Irrationality of Antiracist Empathy,” Leigh Patel, an Associate Professor of Education at Boston College, agrees that when Huckleberry Finn is defended simply as a “masterpiece” and “not for Twain’s antiracist message,” it becomes “a palimpsest for thin discussions of who can say what words and so-called literary merit, the discussions themselves acting as proxies for entitlement.” But she also offers a more thorough and nuanced analysis of how “vectors of oppression” operate, regardless of the racial composition of the classroom, and diagnoses how Dr. Smagorinksy’s premise “concede[s] literacy teacher education as a necessarily white-centered project” and undercuts the “contested engagement” which “is an important part of our work…as educator, as scholars – really, as readers.”

Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an Assistant Professor in University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, frames her response around a Mark Ellen Dakin article from 2008 which compares responses to the same inflammatory terms. Dr. Thomas aims to persuade teachers that a key factor in contextualizing any historical narrative, whether Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Life of Frederick Douglass, is to place them in dialogue with each other and with alternative narratives. She quotes Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie assertion that, “The consequence of a single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” For Thomas, as for Patel, Smagorinsky’s methods of adaptation and censoring do nothing to undermine the assumption of Huckleberry Finn‘s status, elevated above the contemporaneous and contemporary perspectives of minority, international, and women writers, or to place it in an inclusive ongoing cultural conversation.

Dr. Chadwick, currently Vice President of NCTE and formerly a Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School, who has also written extensively about Twain, offers several examples of texts – Twain’s “A True Story,” poetry by Ann Plato, 19th-century African-American newspapers, various novels and memoirs by former slaves and free blacks – which produce dignity without undermining “the importance of difficult conversations.” Like Dr. Thomas, she emphasizes the transhistorical contexts of the word n***** which cannot be erased by what she calls “benevolent hobbling” produced by “White guilt.” Dr. Smagorinsky is overly concerned with the production of empathy between teachers and somehow accepts “the shrill absence of the voices and identities of contemporary students,” who, Chadwick insists, “are made of sterner stuff and demand, demand to be heard” on a multitude of subjects. Educators dulled by over-attention to the singular concern of how racial epithets operate in Huckleberry Finn miss opportunities to teach aspects of the novel, as well as Twain’s larger body of work and the literary culture of 19th-century America which really resonate with contemporary students.

Dr. Chadwick made a similar point during her presentation at the 8th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies this summer. By conducting hundreds of interviews with readers of Huckleberry Finn and other Twain works she has revealed a rich network of resonances with contemporary student audiences that have little or nothing to do with the critical debates which have guided pedagogy for the last century.

Dr. Smagorinsky presumes student responses to the language of the novel will not only be categorically predictable, but preclude their ability to interpret the narrative on any other plane. Dr. Chadwick finds, rather, that many young readers are bored by pedagogical attention given to racializing language at the expense of the themes they extract from their reading, like nationalism, hazing, educational reform, and civil disobedience. It isn’t that the novel has calcified, she argues, so much as the pedagogical approach.