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.