“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” has always been well-acquainted with controversy, and in New Jersey, there is a renewed sense of trepidation surrounding the novel and a new initiative to remove it from curricula.
Widely regarded as one of the most influential works in American literature, Mark Twain’s raw and uncensored 1880s book centers on a young boy, Huckleberry “Huck” Finn and his travel companion — and eventual close friend — an escaped slave named Jim, as they make their way through the antebellum South.
“Huckleberry Finn,” also commonly referred to as “Huck Finn,” is notable for many things, among them, its persistent usage of the N-word, featured in the text more than 200 times. Despite its prevalence as well as the appearance of stereotypes, plenty of academics interpret the text as taking a position against both racism and slavery — not least because the portrayal of the racially biased characters happen to be widely negative, whereas Jim is presented in a more positive light.
According to Politico, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) and Jamel Holley (D-Union), two African-American Assembly members, have initiated a resolution, NJ ACR225, which asserts, “The novel’s use of a racial slur and its depictions of racist attitudes can cause students to feel upset, marginalized or humiliated and can create an uncomfortable atmosphere in the classroom.” It also cited school districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota and Mississippi which have taken “Huck Finn” out of the curricula.
This is not the first time New Jersey has taken issue with the book. In 1996, “Huck Finn” was temporarily pulled from Cherry Hill’s curriculum. Parents and faculty would come to agree that a workshop was the best way to approach the book in the classroom. About the workshops, PBS said, teachers would be provided “historical, cultural, and literary resources to see the novel in a new light.”
New Jersey Legislature, it appears, has not directly confronted the issues surrounding the book, not in the last three decades, according to research conducted by Politico.
The resolution came about, Reynolds-Jackson told Politico, following an onslaught of racially motivated threats and messages sent to black students by a Hopewell student. Though Reynolds-Jackson noted “Huck Finn” had nothing to do with the incident, she hopes to use the ordeal as “a teachable moment.” She elaborated, “There are other books out there that can teach about character, plot and motive — other ways besides using this particular book for that lesson.”
Concern surrounding the book’s portrayal of racial biases is more recent — decades old now but the book was originally polarizing because of its perceived “crudeness.”
Toni Morrison, also an African-American and Nobel Prize-winning author, previously wrote, “Fear and alarm are what I remember most of about my first encounter with Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ Palpable alarm.” She called the experience “deeply disturbing,” and noted that when she reread the book in junior high, she was even more uncomfortable. Morrison went on to describe subsequent experiences with “Huck Finn,” the fourth time leading her to the conclusion that removing the book was “a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Though the resolution in New Jersey is non-binding, Nora Pelizzari, says, it “encourages individuals in communities and emboldens them to challenge the book.” Pelizzari is the communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship — the coalition being a fervent advocate for the presence of “Huck Finn” in schools, has been fighting bans of the book since being founded in 1974.
Reynolds-Jackson feels “This is a racist book.” She added, “I think in the climate that we’re in right now, where you have a president that is caging up our children and separating us in this way, I think to use this book in this climate is not doing the African-American community any justice at all.” Despite her own feelings on “Huck Finn,” she said multiple teachers have told her they enjoy teaching it.
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