As a biracial teen, I’ve been taught my entire life that the n-word is the worst thing you could call someone. So, imagine my discomfort when I learned that we would be allowed to say it in class, while reading Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The novel uses the word a disproportionate 219 times in only 366 pages, and my heart skips a beat every time my teacher reads a quote.
At first I wondered why we would say a word that’s so powerful it objectifies black people. But after weighing the pros and cons, I fully agree with the use of the n-word, only in classroom settings. It opens a gateway to important discussions about the word and its use both historically and in today’s culture. That way, students have an unbiased environment to learn about the impact of the word without any accusations or blame.
At East, we are fortunate to even be allowed to read this book. Some schools around the U.S. ban it because of its blatantly racist tones. However, students will never be fully educated if we don’t face the word head-on. Banning the book or skipping over the word doesn’t change the fact that the word is written right there in front of us. It’s the dialect that Twain meant to use, and we are taught it in school for a purpose. Our teachers expect us to be mature enough to appreciate the use in literature and not turn around and call some kid the n-word in the hall the next day. Students need to learn the difference between using it in an academic and social context.
Academically, that’s how people really spoke in the 1830’s, when the novel was set. No one thought twice about calling someone the n-word, just like people don’t think twice about calling someone by their name. That’s what it was to white people: a black person’s name.
But today we should be better than degrading people by calling them the n-word.
It’s so powerful that it makes almost everyone in the class uncomfortable. But that’s exactly why we should say it in direct quotes from the book, to push people out of their comfort zone, so that they know how to handle those types of situations in the future.
The word reminds black students of a time when their ancestors were whipped and beaten. They were ripped from their families and lives only to work hours on end for another man. The makes them feel as though they are an object, not a human, owned by another superior being. Although now we may be more advanced than those times, it doesn’t change the fact that millions of people had to go through those hardships.The word epitomizes the struggle that black people have had to endure for centuries, and the struggle that their race has overcome.
We give it more power by skipping over it while reading out loud. We let the word consume our minds over everything else. Saying it out loud creates a way for teachers to teach students about the impact of the word.. And even if a teacher does skip over it or replaces it with “the n-word” instead, the actual word is written right there on the page. It’s still in everyone’s mind.
People may feel guilty using the n-word in an academic setting, because it’s not appropriate in a normal setting. And I completely understand. But I believe that was Twain’s purpose in using it so many times. Using words like “slave,” “African-American” or any other euphemisms in place of the n-word makes no sense in the context of this realist novel. The idea of “white guilt” shouldn’t mean that we ignore the entire history of the word and how it was used.
Although it’s still a personal decision, the purpose of reading the book should be to face the word head on. No one individual or group should be expected to be spokespersons for their race. Of course, if you aren’t comfortable saying the actual word while reading out loud in class, don’t. But saying the word should be an option only for historical and learning purposes.
A school’s purpose should be to teach students the historical meaning of literature to prepare them to see it again. If books like Huck Finn are banned in high schools, that doesn’t mean the students will never see the n-word again in the real world. It’s better to prepare students to handle the word maturely rather than turn a blind eye to it completely.