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On a raft

July 23, 2012

AJ and I have been reading Huckleberry Finn out loud. It’s hard reading those great books to your kid, the ones you really want them to like. It’s important to pick the right time. I wasn’t sure I was right to read this one right now, but it seems to be going well. AJ likes it and I’m enjoying it too. I haven’t read it in many years and I’ve never read it out loud before. All the dialect is a challenge — I still don’t feel like I’ve found Jim’s voice. But I settle easily into Huck’s speech patterns and am grateful that he tells the bulk of the story. It’s a wonderful

The biggest challenge of reading it out loud, though, is the frequency of the appearance of the word “nigger.” It’s uncomfortable for me to say (just as it was uncomfortable for me to type just now). My husband doesn’t like that I’m saying it. He was arguing for leaving it out or skipping passages. But I wanted to talk to AJ about the word, to make sure he knows that it doesn’t just mean a person with dark skin, but that it implies a whole host of unpleasant and untrue assumptions about the people to whom it is applied, that it assumes that they are not full people at all but something else, something lesser. I wanted to make sure also that he understood that Huck was just speaking the language he knew and didn’t mean to think ill of Jim. But at the same time, he is perpetuating the problem, even as he tries not to.

The reason I picked up Huck Finn at this particular moment in time is that AJ was asking a lot of questions about the Trayvon Martin case. In the description of Martin, he heard things that I think he identified with. Martin was wearing a hoodie. AJ likes to wear hoodies. Martin was buying Skittles. Skittles are AJ’s favorite candy. Somewhere inside he was thinking, “It could have been me.” Part of me doesn’t want to dissuade him of that. I want him to take ownership of that horrific event, the shooting of an innocent boy. I want him to think about what it would be like and to be careful for himself and compassionate of others.I want him to feel that he’s like Martin. But the truth is, AJ’s a little white boy from the suburbs. He’s about a likely to be mistaken for a gun-toting criminal as my great aunt Sally.

Huck Finn wrestles with similar issues. He sees Jim as the only person in his life who both understands him and sticks by him. Naturally he values Jim, but he also knows that his society does not, and he is conflicted. We had a long talk about the point in the story where Huck is about to turn Jim in for being an escaped slave and then thinks better of it. That’s the kind of moral lesson I want to teach, that sometimes you know what’s right when everybody else, even the law, tells you otherwise. Sometimes you have to trust your gut and act on what you know to be true. It’s easier to see clearly from a cultural and temporal distance. But in the moment, Huck is conflicted. He isn’t sure what’s right. But in the end, he goes with his gut.

As AJ enters middle school, I think a lot about these issues and hope he can go with his gut too. As he starts to strike out on his own more and more, I wonder if I’ve given him the moral compass he needs to protect himself and look out for others. We’ve talked about peer pressure and what to do if his friends are doing something that he knows to be wrong. But when faced with that situation for real, will he know what to do? Have I given him enough strength to make the right choices?

As we’re reading Huck, I am also thinking about what AJ may find in school next year. He has grown up in a suburb that is predominantly white, where I could count the number of students of color in his school on my fingers and have plenty of fingers left over. If we end up in Brooklyn, there’s a very good chance AJ will be in a racial minority at his school. How will he feel about that? He is racially oblivious right now and doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. But he’s never been in a position where he has had to consider it, not really. How do you teach your children to understand race and our national history of racial issues without unwittingly imposing any of your own biases? Huck Finn is not a bad start.

How do you talk about race with your kids (or, if you don’t have kids, how do you think we should do it?)? What do you think they need to know? How can we teach them the painful parts of our history in a way that helps them understand the present without replicating the problems in the future? I’ve been asking this question for years. I still haven’t got a good answer, but I keep trying.

You can read other posts on this topic in a July 2007 discussion of the TinTin books and in a pair of book reviews from April 2010.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. eleanorio permalink
    July 24, 2012 7:01 am

    You raise many, many good points. Ideally we should live in a world where the colour of one’s skin is as insignificant as the colour of one’s hair or eyes. Just another identifying feature. But it will be many, many generations yet before that is the case. As a parent who has been there, done that, I can say that you are doing a good thing by discussing the historical context of the novel with AJ. But his reaction to “persons of colour” will be determined in the end by your own (you and Mr. Spy), as children take these cues from their parents. My kids grew up in French Canada where they were more likely to be discriminated against for being têtes carées (anglophones) than racially distinct. Now one of them lives in a big city where she mingles with colleagues of all colours and ethnic backgrounds. As for saying the word “nigger” out loud, I remember something that happened when I was a teenager. I’d gone to some high school dance and ended up going out afterward with a boy whose parents were Italian immigrants. He freely used the word “wop”. When I said it, he told me, uhuh, that wasn’t permissible. Italians can freely use an ethnically-charged word among themselves, but it is verboten to an outsider. I wondered at that, because Jews never call each other “kikes” or “sheenies”. That would just be too horrible.

  2. freshhell permalink
    July 24, 2012 8:03 am

    I think saying “nigger” is all about context. I read Huck Finn to Dusty last year, one of the last books she let me read to her. I kept it in. I think it’s important to stick to the original text and not whitewash (ha – a Tom reference!) it. Kids need to understand racism and how far back it goes and – esp as we living in Virginia – how prevelant these issues are and how difficult to rid ourselves of them.

    Dusty will also face a very diverse group of students in middle school. She’s getting a dose of it in camp – held at the middle school – now and when she mentioned the racial difference I say, “Good. It’s important to meet all kinds of people.” The number of African-Americans at her elementary school could fit in a spoon.

    The book’s so wonderful on so many other levels too. All the completely convoluted schemes of Tom and all the scam artists they meet are hilarious. The nigger issue is important to talk about but shouldn’t take anymore of the spot light than it needs. We had a lot of good conversations while reading it and the race/bigotry issue was only one of them.

  3. July 24, 2012 10:14 am

    When kids have questions or wonderings, rather than to immediately answer them, I think it’s best (as in most interesting and rewarding) to invite them to share what they think. For one, if they can articulate what they think, whatever they end up sharing will tell you a lot about what they are noticing (and not noticing), both in your own behaviors and those of the people and media around them.

    Our kids don’t have the same baggage we do. We have all sorts of iconic images and stories in our heads that inform our responses to loaded issues like race, sexuality, violence, religion, etc. It’s fascinating to find out what our kids’ baggage looks and sounds like, even at the tender ages of 11 or 5 or 15. For example, I tend to think there’s no way for you to prepare him for being a minority, beyond saying, “It’s possible you’ll be a minority,” which seems meaningless to me. Better to just keep checking in, finding out what he’s noticing and how the world is speaking to him, through him, what grabs him, what’s noteworthy and what isn’t. Beginning with reading Huck Finn together sounds like a great start to the conversation!

  4. July 24, 2012 2:16 pm

    One of the things that Walker and I discovered about middle school is that, no matter how small and cute a guy is, he starts being treated like a potentially dangerous teenage boy. And as he grows taller, that gets worse. Males do not get the benefit of the doubt in American public schools.

    He was watching a stand-up comedy routine the other day by a guy who discussed “proper” use of the word “nigger” today (go 30 minutes in to get to the part about use of the n-word):

  5. July 24, 2012 2:25 pm

    P.S. Give the Donald Glover video ten minutes to get to the point where he says “everybody’s got to start using it!” (the n word)

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