During the nineteenth century, regional and period language was used in a way that most 21st century readers would find offensive, for modern society standards do not tolerate overt racism. In Mark Twain’s classic 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, particular words are so disturbing that individuals across the country are still, to this day, attempting to have the book banned in schools and libraries. The idea that any book should be locked away in a vault, let alone an example of a beloved American classic such as this, is profoundly disturbing.
Such acts are against what America stands for. Works of art, like this book, should be used to open dialogue and analysis on both the piece itself and the society from which it came. Rather than attempting to censor this particular novel, society should encourage students to have a discussion about why the offending words are so egregious, and why it is important that a record of these words and attitudes exist for generations to come. Words carry weight, and the significance of the “N” word in Huckleberry Finn is heavy and dripping with a sordid history of racism.
It is a term that holds an impassable amount of cultural appropriation and painful association. The word, used in a classic literary context, is then a perfect way to open up a dialogue about issues that are difficult to talk about. Political correctness, racial slurs, America’s dark past—these are all topics that can be used to teach young people how to have a meaningful conversation about a torrid subject matter. Instead of banning the book and ignoring the past, society should be embracing the story and teaching people how to deal with the words in a tactful and progressive way.
If young people can understand the horrible impact of such language, they will be less likely to use these words in casual conversations. Moving forward from America’s shameful history of racism is difficult and taxing. But the only way to progress toward a more loving and tolerant future is to learn from past mistakes. Twain was a product of his time, putting words into the mouths of his characters that would easily have come from the mouths of real people. It is also important to remember that the character of Huck Finn himself is anti-racist, so teaching the book to young people is not teaching racism, but acceptance.
It is imperative for people to connect with the period of history that Huckleberry Finn comes from because suppressing these truths about America’s past can easily create a skewed interpretation of facts. If this occurs, society is one step closer to forgetting and repeating mistakes from past events. Banning books is an effective way to censor, and in the case of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, censorship would directly resolve inappropriate language being heard and used in the high school English class. With this said, Americans whole-heartedly believe that open expression is a very important personal right.
The right to free speech is sacred, and it is mostly untouched even in circumstances where highly polarizing or hateful words are being used. A work of fiction that integrates dialogue containing the “N” word may seem hateful to some, but it is unequivocally the intention of the author to use it in a context of satire. Censorship will effectively close the book on meaningful discussion when what society really needs is to open it for thoughtful examination. At a time when it is nearly impossible to find an adult engaged in a healthy debate or discussion, teaching young adults how to think and speak analytically and fairly is a dire need.
Using fictional novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a bridge to a discussion of what used to be, and what has become, is a perfect opportunity that this country cannot afford to dismiss. By keeping books deemed controversial in public education, Americans can begin to understand the preciousness of the right to speak their minds, as well as respect and acknowledge the lessons of the past. This alone will heal the mistakes of the past and create a future of tolerance and opportunity for all.