“Yes, I want to tour the Mark Twain House,” I reaffirmed, for the second time, to my husbands questioning stare, when he asked how I wanted to spend my birthday.
The Mark Twain House is about a 30 minute drive from me, yet I’ve never been there. This past year, I picked up American Literature, a course I hadn’t taught in ten years, as a favor to my department chair. I have never been an American Lit fan, sure, I like/appreciate some of the classics, but I find most of it dull and flat as compared to my first love, British Literature. When I taught the course ten years ago, I didn’t enjoy it, partly because I was new to the school and new to the course, so I was more caught up in trying to acquaint myself with the level of teaching as opposed to the content.
Last summer, I decided to revamp my entire syllabus in order to make the course and the literature more interesting and accessable to my students and for me. I am a firm believer that if the teacher isn’t excited about what he/she is teaching, it’s impossible to excite/engage the students.
For The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn unit, as far as I’m concerned a necessity to teach in any American Lit course, I’d decided to take a stylistic and language approach. For one, Twain’s strength is his satirical approach, not to mention the number of dialects he employs:
” IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
This novel has been on the banned book list since it’s release in the U.S. in 1885; currently, according to the American Library Association, Huck Finn is still considered one of the most challenged classics primarily due to the use of the “N” word which appears over 200 times. In fact, some editors have replaced the “N” word with “slave” which continues to stir debate/controversy.
I decided to take the opportunity to look at the style of the novel, in particular the use of the “N” word in order to debate it’s function and purpose in the novel with my students. So, I came up with the title of my unit: “Words Matter.” Something that lead me to this perspective was an idea I morphed from a UCONN E.C.E. professional development conference I’d attended earlier in the year. In an effort to “jump outside of the novel” (which was the thrust of the P.D.), one instructor had assigned a similar assignment where students were asked to deconstruct a racially charged slur in order to examine their own feelings about the word in addition to its’ history and purpose. I would use this as a model to deconstruct the “N” word which would become the model for their own word choice later on in the unit.
Ironically, when I visited the Mark Twain House, there was an exhibit which I literally stumbled upon entitled “Race, Rage, and Redemption” : one that spoke directly to the deconstruction unit I’d created this past year. Rick Koster, from The Day, writes:
“Half of the room is devoted to “Hateful Things,” a collection of about 40 objects from FerrisStateUniversity’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The remainder is taken up by “A Sound Heart & A Deformed Conscience,” a survey of artifacts from the Twain House’s archives that testify to Twain’s own beliefs on race and race relations – and how they evolved from his boyhood in the slave-owning south to his role as a champion of black education and the social integration of African Americans as equals into the American community.”
Wishing I could take my students there to witness the hate, first hand, as I had, I took in the images and words so I could recall as much as I could to pass on to them realizing the exhibit ends in early September.
I did manage to take away some literature I could pass on, to add to other pieces which include both sides of the argument surrounding the use of the “N” word, which we discuss and debate in class. I try to provide them with sources including the etymology of the word from a myriad of sources, both scholarly and otherwise, including the Oxford English Dictionary, Wikipedia, Urban Dictionary, in addition to articles which argue for both sides of the debate. Should the “N” word have been edited out of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? What purpose does the use of the “N” word serve? Is there any occasion which the use of the “N” word is appropriate? We even analyze some modern day rap songs like Nas’s “To Be a Nigger” because there is a real side of the argument out there about African Americans using this as a term of endearment towards other African Americans.
Before even reading Huck Finn or addressing his style or the use of the “N” word (which, incidentally, I read the word “nigger” as it is used in the novel, but refer to it as the “N” word when using my own words– I think when I SAY it to them, it SHOULD sting), I show them this WORDS Matter video which is part of an anti-bullying campaign. Next, I ask them to brainstorm a list of hurtful words, those they have said, or have been called or have heard. I splash up a list of words/terms I’ve come up with. Not saying a word, I leave my list on the screen for a two minutes. I see students squinting, jaws dropping, some snickering, whispering to a nearby student, but they don’t say a word aloud, nor do I. I move onto the next screen in my Powerpoint which is Maya Angelou’s The Power of Words Finally, I ask them to journal about a personal experience in which a slur was used, to explain the situation and their feelings attached to it.
After reading roughly the first half of the novel and comparing it to the much Disney-ized version of the film The Adventures of Huck Finn (Disney, 1993), a productive discussion ensued about Disney replacing the use of the “N” word with slave in addition to editing it out altogether from the dialogue. My students GOT IT, citing how the treatment of African Americans was softened in the film, thus taking away from the reality of the situation. One student noted that reading Nigger in the text was like seeing the list of racial and ethnic slurs I composed up the board. He said, “it just isn’t right to see those words coming from a teacher. I didn’t even realize you knew some of those terms.” I acknowledged that I was hoping they’d be shocked by some of the words before them, for it was meant to make them feel a level of discomfort.
During the deconstruction portion of our unit when students were given the opportunity to learn the history of the word and read various uses and opinions regarding the use of the word, a variety of reactions occurred. There were those who refused to say the word, feeling it’s never right, and those who feel African Americans have a right to say it, and a few who feel the word has changed over time and doesn’t hold the same prejudice as the word once had. The overriding consensus, however, was that one needs to consider their audience– this coming after they were given the task of deconstructing the word of their choosing (a racial, ethnic or sexual slur).
A very practical lesson on the use of inappropriate words came when I’d reserved the laptops to use during class for the students to research their chosen words to deconstruct. Among them were… gay, faggot, coon, jew, retard, cunt, nazi… What I had not taken into consideration is that our computer system has Websense, a security software program which sensors what the students are able to search and not search. Ten minutes into the class, students are inputting search terms on the sites I’d assigned them, they began being booted out of the system altogether. “Mrs. C, I got kicked out,” I hear from across the room, so I move over to that student and her computer to see about rectifying the issue, only before I reach her, a few other students call out the same– eventually, almost all of the students called out they’d been kicked off the computer. They were wondering if they’d be penalized for trying to search a “TABOO” term. I put their concerns at ease by stating that if any of them were spoken to, to have the administrator see me. I joked that if this lesson turned out to be my swan song, that I’d hoped they found the meaning in the lesson I was trying to convey.
It didn’t turn out to be my swan song; in fact, it turned out to be the success that I’d hoped it would be. Many students stated, throughout the remainder of the course, what an eye-opener this unit had been for them. One even presented me with this picture
she’d found on the internet, suggesting I add it to the Powerpoint I’d shown at the beginning of the unit, stating “this picture encompasses the whole lesson we learned.”
I believe it isn’t enough to tell students something; they need to experience it in order to embody it.
Thank you, Mark Twain, for teaching us that Words DO Matter.