Should Students be required to Read So-called Racist Books?

Ava Grandberry, Guest Writer

We were beaten and enslaved when we came to America. So why should we have to read about it? Here’s why. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book about a white boy and slave who becomes friends during the 1880’s and go on many adventures despite all odds. Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be included as required reading for 11th grade students. Although it may be uncomfortable and dark, we should read about it so that our history won’t repeat itself.

Students must read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it connects our past with the present and without it we would lose records of how people were in the past. For example, as Andrew Levy explains in his book Huck Finn’s America“Mark Twain delivered Huck Finn to a nation where Jim Crow laws had more difficulty voting, held fewer public offices, and had fewer economic opportunities than they did in the previous decade, and where a racially biased judicial system drove many blacks into convict leasing systems that rented out their bodies for pennies a day.” Mark Twain didn’t intend this book to hurt us but to capture what life was like for a white boy and a slave during the 1880’s. Levy further explains,  “In this light, it matters that we had been misreading Huck Finn, because that misreading is both wasted opportunity and metaphor for our larger failure to recognize our close relation to the past.” In other words, because we’re constantly censoring things that cause us pain we tend to lose the uglier parts of our history.  As Kakutani writes, “To censor or redact books on school reading lists is a form of denial: shutting the door on harsh historical realities — whitewashing them or pretending they do not exist.” By doing that, we forget our past and we can never move forward and learn from our mistakes. This is one reason why students should be required to read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Photo Credit: William Creswell via PhotosForClass cc
Photo Credit: William Creswell via PhotosForClass cc

Some people may argue that students should not read this book due to its blatant usage of racist language. Mark Twain’s usage of the N-word greatly offends many students who read this book: “But when they told me there was a state where they’d let a n—– vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again.” This is offensive because it puts down black students who read this book. Furthermore, it also plays up the stereotype of slaves through his portrayal of Jim. For example, Jim talks differently than the rest of the characters throughout the book and he’s being portrayed as dumber than the rest by the way he talks. “I tuck out en shin down de hill en ‘spec to steal a skift ‘long de sho’ som’ers ‘bove de town, but dey wuz people a-stirrin’yit, so I hid in de ole tumble-down cooper shop on de bank to wait for everybody to go ‘way.” But, to combat this controversy, we can always substitute another word for the n-word, such as the word “slave” instead. They already released a “sanitized” version, created by Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, at Montgomery, Ala. But even that would cut the impact of this historical book.

In other words, Mark Twain’s book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should absolutely be included as required reading for high school students. Students should read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it connects our past with the present. It’s a complex book with meanings that can still be applied to in today’s society. Even though on the surface The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may seem like a racist book, if you look past that and discover the many layers hidden within the book, you will see that this book is just the opposite.