Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” was first banned in Concord, Mass., in 1885, and described as “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Today it spikes controversy over Twain’s frequent use of the n-word, which occurs more than 200 times in the text. This controversy leaves schoolteachers and administrators to make a decision on whether or not to say or teach the n-word in class; and for some, there is never a clear answer.
In 2015, Lynn Pierce, a white high school teacher at Heritage High in Virginia, was conducting an Advanced Placement history lesson on Native Americans when a student asked, ‘What’s the big deal with calling them Redskins?”—referring to the Washington D.C football team.
Peirce then tried to explain why it is inappropriate to use names that reflect prejudice against any racial group. She reportedly asked, “What would you think if someone started a team called the Newport News N****rs?”
Peirce, who had been teaching for 40 years, was suspended. Her former student, Juslena Williams, who is African-American, told a local news reporter that “Honestly, in everyday life as an African-American, there are people that use this word to greet one another, but as soon as someone uses it in terms of expressing themselves, people get offended.”
At Bozeman High, students are taught many controversial books, including “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, “Candide” by Voltaire, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “Fools Crow” by James Welch, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. Many of these titles have been banned in other schools across the country for their language or content.
Perri Sherrill, an instructional coach at Bozeman High, often guides new teachers on how to approach the n-word.
“I think teaching it in the context in which it was written and the context of the times when it was written and why it was used then and why an author used it is really important. For example, in “Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain didn’t use it necessarily to be racist himself—it was a reflection of the time and he was trying to make a point about different stations in life,” Sherrill says.
In 2011, a publishing company in Alabama said that schools don’t have to change their reading list—they changed “Huckleberry Finn” instead. Their newly released edition removes the n-word and replaces it with “slave.”
In an interview for The Guardian, Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., says that “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups, as a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.”
Sherrill believes that the removal of the n-word takes away from the text itself. She claims that “Unless you rewrite the sentence, students know in context that you’re leaving something out and it may draw more attention to it or take away opportunities to talk about why it was used in that context.”
Bozeman High School English department chair and teacher Bethany Spangelo says that “Using the n-word is kind of the same as if the book was giving you this really graphic description of slave conditions, it’s just as real as that and part of the reality.”
M’Kenzie Elsberry, a U.S History teacher at BHS, agrees:
“I don’t think censorship is a good thing. I think if it is a parental discussion then it’s different, but it was written in a time period that was different and I think that it is good for students to know that’s how the time period was and things have changed. Also, that we don’t use the word in a derogatory way and why. But it was still part of that era and I think it gives an importance to the history of the time period.”
Spangelo and Elsberry explain that they try to give their students a good background before reading books that contain the n-word by having students read nonfiction essays and conducting a Socratic seminar where students get to have a conversation with each other about how they feel about being taught and reading the word.
Bozeman High School junior Grace Martin recently had this discussion in her class after starting the book “The Good Lord Bird” by James McBride, which tells the story of a young boy who is born into slavery. The boy eventually joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade and must pass as a girl to survive.
Martin believes that it is important to learn the meaning of the n-word before using it in the classroom and hearing it outside of class.
“I’ve heard it outside of class and I know what it means so I know that it’s not an acceptable thing to say, but if you had never talked about it or learned the importance of it, then some kids might think it would be okay to use it,” Martin said.
“From the time that we’ve had written language, there are things that could have content in it that is sensitive. A lot of times it’s not good literature unless there’s good controversy or deals with hard issues,” Sherrill concludes.