A Teaching Moment

THIS WILL be brief, as I am exhausted.
Even as distracted as I am of late, I watched out of the corner of my eye, the erupting discussion surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Auburn University English professor, Alan Gribben has chosen to make the book “easier” to teach because parents, teachers and students are “uncomfortable” with some of the “content” (read: “the n-word”). I’m linking here because, well, this is all exhausting — territory well-tread and bloodied. But what I’m left with is just this: The discussion — particularly the ongoing one on the virtual-water cooler we know as Facebook — that purports to be about “protecting our children” and “moving on” and showing them how we’ve “advanced” aren’t arguments: they are obfuscation. As painful as the truth is — and quite honestly continues to be — is something worth teaching. But really teaching.
It’s in the classroom where the real problem arises. That’s what’s getting lost in this discussion of Finn and the “slave” Jim. It’s imperative to have strong teachers capable of handing the moment (and its inevitable) when the students encounter that word: some giggle, others feel awkward and very visible, others feel like a target in open field. I’ve sat in those classrooms through most of my childhood and adolescence and even into graduate school — embodying that floating target. I know what happens where you’re the only person of color in the room and some sort of race bomb accidentally goes off in the classroom and the teacher doesn’t know how to handle it, so the whole thing flares, dangerously. And then, because, well you are often called upon to explain, contextualize, “speak for” other — the room turns to you.

I know this, too, as a journalist.

The problem isn’t that the words are in the text. They’ve been there. They aren’t a secret. They reflect a painful, protracted moment in this country. One we haven’t at this late date come to terms with. The idea of replacing it with the word “slave” — is not only imprecise it’s patently incorrect. The word is an ugly, American truth that can not be elided. Who are we serving here? Not children, who will feel lied to later. Given a text that had been prettied up by the Ministry of Truth (yes, Orwell would simply nod here), they will not be served, but duped. The issue here is something more essential: The need to have someone who is standing in front of the room who can walk students through that thicket is imperative. Doing a “find/replace” isn’t the answer. Euphemism seldom is. Let’s do battle with the truth.

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