Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is usually taught in junior level high school classes. The book always generates controversy because of the copious use of the “N” word and the social power Huck (White adolescent) has over Jim (an adult Black man who was enslaved and, thus, subservient to Huck).
Usually the scenario is this: there is one or few Black students in a class that is predominantly non-Black (including the instructor). The subject of Huckleberry Finn comes up in the curriculum, forcing the Black student to endure multiple utterances of the “N” word by White classmates in discussing the book (but, without doubt, the “N” word still retains all of its negativity in the present day).
A related scenario has recently occurred in Texas, where the sole Black student in the class did not agree with the teacher writing out the whole “N” word (rather than using the abbreviated phrase “N-word”) in preparation for reading Huckleberry Finn.
Ibrahim Mohamed, 17, was the only black student in the class during the lesson in which students were to discuss hurtful statements and how context can affect a word’s meaning. Birdville school district officials said the exercise was part of a new curriculum designed to put such powerful words in proper context and was not meant to offend anyone.
But the teacher “badgered” him after denying his request to remove the word from the chalkboard or replace it with “N-word,” and she continued to say the slur during class, said his mother, Tunya Mohamed. The teen said he felt singled out when the teacher asked if the word offended him and said, “It hurts — doesn’t it?”
In many ways, given the omnipresence of institutional racism, Whites and Blacks have different interpretations of the same event. The teacher viewed the “N” word dispassionately (as the “N” word does not affect the teacher personally). The Black student viewed the “N” word personally as the student’s Blackness is a daily topic.
Here, the teacher in this case may not have meant to cause the student harm. But in failing to recognize that the sole Black student in the classroom could feel insulted by the use of the whole “N” word, the issue escalated into a problem quickly.
Given the persistent racial situation in the U.S., I fully expect the controversy arising while reading of Huckleberry Finn in a classroom to occur again.