The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains controversial more than 100 years after its publication because of the troubling racial issues that lie at the heart of the novel. Many readers are particularly put off by the widespread use of the N-word throughout the book. Watch the video below from the news program 60 Minutes that tells about one publisher's attempt to address the controversy.
In the video, educator David Bradley argues that we should face this controversy head-on, rather than avoiding it. We have gathered a set of readings that look at the “N” word and its significance in our society, and have divided them into two groups. Please read each set of readings and the commentary that follows, and write two journal/forum entries on the readings as directed.
Readings for Part 1:
Readings for Part 2:
Note: If any of the readings are blocked, you can find a Google Drive folder with alternate copies here.
Part 1: "The Incident" and "An Essay on a Wickedly Powerful Word"
These two readings provide an opening for this discussion by focusing on the powerful, destructive effect of the word.
In his remarkable poem “The Incident" Countee Cullen allows the visceral impact of the word to speak for itself. Cullen was a leading figure of the Harlem renaissance, an African-American artistic and literary movement in the 1920s, and he was celebrated for his ability to craft complex, formal poetry. But in this case the power of the poem is grounded in its childlike simplicity. As you read and re-read it, consider how Cullen’s straightforward language and spare verse form add weight to his tale. Pay particular attention to the tone and effect of the final verse: rather than describe his feelings, Cullen limits himself to a bare factual account. In your response, you might want to talk about the effect of Cullen’s choices.
“An Essay on a Wickedly Powerful Word”
His “Essay on a Wickedly Powerful Word,” was prompted by hearing white LAPD detective mark Fuhrman to O.J. Simpson trial. In this response, Woods points to “all the historic and modern-day violence that is packed into those six letters” (241). He argues that no euphemism (like “the N-word,” which we have used here) can possibly convey the real meaning of the actual word. Nor he argues, can the word be used in any context without bringing its full meaning into play. Even when hip-hop artists or old friends or reporters use the word, “it’s the same word, spiked with the same poison, delivering the same message of inferiority, degradation, hatred, and shame” (242).
Comment on Part 1
These first two sources talk about the historical impact of the word, and the impact of its use by whites as a term of hate. Cullen is more interested in showing than in talking about the impact of the N-word. Think about other ways he might have written about this incident. Why has the form he chose—this poem—had such a lasting impression?
Keith Woods takes a different approach, attempting to explain the reasons this word has such power. In your response, you might want to explore your own thoughts on whether a hateful word is inherently hateful, or whether its meaning is created by its context and by the shared assumptions of speakers and listeners.
Part 2:“Nigga? Please,” “The ‘N’ Word: It Just Slips Out,” and “That Word”
A particular irony in the controversy over the presence of the “N” word in Huckleberry Finn is that this word appears with astonishing, unregulated frequency in the movies, music, and everyday speech that make up American popular culture. Young people are certainly not sheltered from hearing the word, but many would argue that the contexts and uses of the word make all the difference.
Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli Green makes no apologies for his own use of the word. Responding to white television journalist Piers Morgan, who declared that black people should stop saying the N-word, Kweli argues that the word is a reflection of the context that created it, and that its use by African-Americans "was born out . . . hundreds of years of humiliation, degradation and violence."
“The ‘N’ Word: It Just Slips Out”
Allen Francis' essay “The ‘N’ Word: It Just Slips Out,” brings a student perspective into this discussion. Francis wrote this essay when he was 18 years old. What gives it particular strength is his open discussion of his “mixed feelings” about the word. He traces his history of fascination, disapproval, and uneasy acceptance of the word in terms that are refreshingly honest. This essay was written more than 20 years ago. Do you think youth culture has changed much since then? How might this essay be written differently by an 18 year-old today?
The last reading about the “N” word is “That Word,” an interview with Randall Kennedy, who wrote a best-selling book in 2002 on the history and uses of the word. As you can see from his wide-ranging discussion, Kennedy’s view of the “N” word is complex. He argues that the word has many uses and meanings, and that he has no problem with its use in some contexts. But at the same time, he repudiates the view that the word can mean whatever a speaker wishes: “I think that people should know about the baggage that comes along with this word. I'm certainly against ignorant usage of the word.” Kennedy’s interview is particularly useful for exploring the enormously varied ways that the “N” word is used in contemporary expression, without losing sight of the terrible history of violence and hatred that it still represents. In your forum, you might want to compare some of Kennedy’s observations to the ideas of the other writers you have encountered in this lesson. What do you think he would say to them?
Comment on Part 2
These last three readings all touch on the way the “N” word is used in contemporary speech and popular culture. What is your own experience of this word? In what ways have you heard it used? Do any of the examples described by Kennedy seem familiar to you? What about the attitudes described by Francis? Do you agree with Kweli that "the word has racial connotations, and those connotations are different for white people and black people"? What are your own thoughts about who (if anybody) can use the “N” word, and in what contexts?
Please write a two-part discussion/journal response on these readings. The reading guide and comments above suggest several possible topics for you to respond to, but it is up to you what you would like to address in your response. The main point is that you should engage the readings in a thoughtful way, and consider what each of them has to offer.