On a raft
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.