Huckleberry Finn good for starting positive discussions about race

written by Anti-Racist Parent contributor Deanna Shoss; originally published at Intercultural Talk

My dad and I came to an impasse again recently. It happens whenever we get into a conversation about race. Or more specifically, a conversation about something that happened in the news or real life where people of different races were involved. As in “they believe this way” from him, and “you can’t call an entire group of people they” from me.

It always ends with him thinking that I think he’s racist, and with me thinking that he thinks I’m all about politically correct language with no real depth of meaning. Rather than digging for clarification, we back away from the conversation. The funny part is that this time we were agreeing about the same thing: Huckleberry Finn should not be banned.

This conversation has been lingering for a few months after my father introduced the book to my 8 year old son, who let me know by announcing that he had learned the ‘N’ word. I’ve blogged about it here and here. It reintroduced me to Mark Twain, who really is a brilliant writer, and it created an insight into institutional racism that I hadn’t anticipated, when Dillon said “back then this word was okay to use.”

Indeed Twain seemingly uses the word not maliciously but as the ‘politically correct’ word at the time, just as African-American is used now. The lesson from an institutional perspective was that “no, it wasn’t okay back then either. It’s just that people didn’t have the power to make a change, and the government had laws that supported the imbalance.” As my dad says, it’s a wonderful snapshot of small town community at that period in history.

But back to Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn, and me and my dad. Dillon and I are halfway through, reading one to two chapters a night. Dad, however, has self-imposed a ban on reading the book to my sister’s son Noah. “I had to stop reading it” he said after Noah used the ‘N’ word at school.

Noah’s school is diverse–in fact, he is in the minority as a caucasian. He has lots of friends of all backgrounds. Nobody seems to know the circumstances around the use of the word, just that he said it, and now everyone has frozen, and Huckleberry Finn is bad.

I do wonder what age is the best to read Huckleberry Finn, and wouldn’t want just any teacher teaching it. But for my Dad and me and Noah and Dillon, I think this could be a critical learning point.

At first I thought I would try to get Noah alone next time we are in town to talk to him. I’m afraid this strict yet silent response is what will perpetuate a self-consciousness in interracial communications. But now, in writing this, I think the best thing might be to encourage my dad to have that conversation, and to use the reading of Huckleberry Finn as the jumping off point.

Perhaps the whole conversation, rather than being an impasse, is a gift through which we can all model language and understand our own biases in communicating about race.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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