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Scholar's View: To understand present, dig into past with texts like ‘Finn’

I write this to students, their teachers and parents. Although I could possibly use this platform with this specific moment to say so much on so many, many topics regarding literature, I choose, however, to use this platform to "get to the chase," so to speak:

Jocelyn ChadwickWith regard to Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the Duluth school district's decision to remove it from classroom instruction, I ask: Why this text? Why this author? Why our children? What is the import of literature from the past to our children's lifelong literacy?

Very late on a recent night and very early the following morning, I had the always-humbling privilege of collaborating with English language-arts educators, both secondary and college, and sharing with their students. The topic was Twain's "Finn:" Huck, Jim, the period, the man, Samuel Clemens, and, yes, language and voice.

Prior to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which was first published in 1885, the most prescient, balanced, and realistic fictional depiction of slavery as an institution and of the people — the human lives that the institution enmeshed and bound — was a short story, "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word Just as I Heard It," by Twain, published in 1874 in Atlantic Monthly. The driving and compelling character of this piece was Aunt Rachel, a slave, mother, and resilient, focused, and strong freedwoman.

Twain continued his depiction and exploration in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" in 1876. But with "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," well, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes expressed it best: "(It is) a conscious (re)visioning of the South and the Southern slave." To Hughes, Twain's books "punctured some of the pretenses of the romantic Old South. The character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn ... is considered one of the best portraits in American fiction of an unlettered slave clinging to the hope of freedom," as he wrote in 1968 in "A Pictorial History of Black Americans."

Yes, this novel has had and continues to have its detractors with whose perspectives I consistently familiarize myself. That said, I also — and we all must — take into account the voices of Lorraine Hansberry, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Jimmy Santiago Baca, W.E.B. DuBoise, Toni Morrison, and so many other authors, past and present, who have read and have appreciated the complexity, the reality, the pain, and the hope this novel introduces. Slave narratives from Frederick Douglass, Henry "Box" Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Bell Scott, Josiah Henson, for example, provided the 19th-century audience its pre-Civil War present and future generations yet to be born to experience and understand the import, impact, brutality, and irrepressible fortitude and hope of freedom of slaves — my ancestors.

With each short story, novel, essay, speech, interview, conversation with his family, and with each conversation and interaction with Mary Ann Cord, John Lewis, Frederick Douglass, George Griffin, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Booker T. Washington, and Warner T. McGuinn (an African-American student whose education at Yale Law School he anonymously supported) — with each encounter, conversation, and exchange, Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain was inextricably affected and so was his writing and his understanding of the world, warts and all, including our use of language, humanity, and inhumanity.

Once, while addressing invited students in the White House, I looked them squarely in their beautiful eyes and said, "Only you, each of you, because of your youth can change how the world works. All of our futures lie within your hands." The occasion for that opportunity was a preview of Ken Burns' PBS documentary series, "Mark Twain," in 2001.

Now, post-9/11 and post-Great Recession, we have another, more-crucibled generation of students: Generation Z. These students' realities and certainties and symbols so far redact and recontextualize ours. These students are, as has been described by concerned Duluth citizens and the Duluth public schools superintendent, surrounded by violence, insensitive language, economic inconsistencies, lifestyle upheavals, and the list could go on, ad infinitum.

But ...

What this text and literature like it accomplishes for our children is the unique ability for them to explore, inquire, examine, and experience the past through the fictional lens of various authors and their times at a distance. To understand, navigate, analyze, and change our present, we must consciously drill into and examine with eyes wide open our past, our individual and collective past. This is what texts like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" provide our children.

What must we as parents, concerned citizens, administrators, and educators do? We must continue to provide and protect the informed, safe environments where this learning is fomented and ultimately emerges. We as parents, concerned citizens, administrators, and educators must privilege our children's voices. We must also "put on our listening and learning ears" to hear what our children are asking and positing.

I have been an educator for decades, a very long time, and what I know right now at this moment, with all of my education and publication, is that nothing transcends what students continue to teach me. This generation of students is far more serious, far more focused, far more inquisitive, far more somber. These students have what I have come to describe as old eyes. Yes, this generation of our children has heard, seen, experienced more than many of us.

And they demand different answers to their very different questions.

Jocelyn A. Chadwick of Arlington Heights, Mass., is an English teacher, scholar, and the author of “The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’” She also is president of the National Council of Teachers of English and conducts a seminar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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