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Teacher's View: Languages change; 'Huck,' other literature remain relevant, important

It is a truism in education that the further people advance up the administrative hierarchy, the further they are from their primary clientele, the students. I align myself with the many instructors who are incredulous over the unilateral removal of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from Duluth's public-school curriculum, a supremely embarrassing faux pas.

Stephen WelshMany of my former students identified "Huck" as their most memorable American-literature unit, and it was my favorite as well. A vocabulary forewarning was needed, but across nearly 30 school years I had no complaints or opt-outs.

A relevant topic unmentioned thus far in letters and commentaries in the News Tribune has been the inevitable changes that occur in languages. All are constantly evolving: New words enter, older words fall away, and still others change definition or value. Language historians call an increase in the usefulness or status of a word amelioration. A decrease is called pejoration.

The n-word is a case in point. Some have identified this ugly term as the most heinous word in the current American lexicon, but even a casual reading of "Huckleberry Finn" reveals this was not always the case.

No one has disproven author Mark Twain's claim that in "Huck" he "painstakingly" reproduced 19th-century dialects. Across the antebellum South, the n-word was a common term identifying African-Americans. From Pap Finn's bigoted rant in Chapter 6 to a doctor's praise of Jim's selflessness in Chapter 42, this word is a consistently utilized nomenclature.

Huck's admiration for Jim grows, and he states in Chapter 23, "He was a mighty good (n-word), Jim was." Huck is unwashed and unlearned, but he's not stupid. He uses a term that is currently reprehensible, but given the realities of its 1840s widespread usage, the terminology in this testimonial did not compromise Huck's compliment to his friend.

It is tasteless and ignorant today, to be sure, but as I consistently stressed to my pupils, the strongest evidence for the term's universality was its routine and non-contemptuous employment among the slaves themselves. In Chapter 18, Jim acknowledges the helpful slave, Jack, declaring, "Dat Jack's a good (n-word), and pooty smart." Another slave, Nat, in Chapter 34, consistently refers to the captured Jim as the "runaway (n-word)." Tellingly, Jim also reflects upon his personal plight in Chapter 16, lamenting that a "po' (n-word) can't have no luck."

I submit that such dialog lends credence to linguists' contentions that the n-word has undergone a profound semantic pejoration, and that a century and a half ago in the South it was a standard appellation used across social strata. If it had then been uncomplimentary, African-Americans surely would not have used this designator in reference to each other.

I urge a rereading of this classic by anyone who questions these assertions.

I certainly am not proposing or condoning the use of this slur in any contemporary environment or communication, but it is beyond counterproductive to sequester a book of "Huck's" stature and worth based upon Twain's accurate inclusion of authentic vernacular American dialect from a bygone era. And it is pathetically simplistic to propose that a wrong can be corrected by suppressing it.

S.P. Welsh of Duluth taught American literature at Superior High School from 1970-2001.

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