WMU News

Controversy of teaching 'Huckleberry Finn' is panel topic

Feb. 4, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- It has been declared a classic of American literature, but some believe that "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain's novel of interracial friendship, is a humiliation to African American students and shouldn't be taught in the classroom.

The controversial 1885 novel about an impoverished Southern white teenager and a runaway slave named Jim is at the heart of a panel discussion Wednesday, Feb. 16 at Western Michigan University.

"Teaching Huck Finn: The Controversy and the Challenge" will be explored by panelists including noted African American scholar Dr. Peaches Henry, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. The discussion will begin at 4 p.m. in Room 1021 of Brown Hall. It is free and open to the public.

"'Huckleberry Finn' is taught in 78 percent of American high schools," says Dr. Allen Carey-Webb, WMU associate professor of English and one of the event's organizers. "But for many African Americans, teaching this book in school is a cause of concern because it is embarrassing to black students. It uses the 'n' word 217 times. So teachers who use the book are likely to be challenged in the classroom."

The issue has embroiled schools across the country from New Jersey to Arizona. Even Kalamazoo County hasn't been exempt. In 1991, parents in Portage objected to the teaching of "Huckleberry Finn" in a high school there and the ensuing controversy became the fodder of nightly news and heated community debate.

Carey-Webb, who has researched and written about that controversy and the teaching of "Huckleberry Finn," will serve on the panel with Henry and a number of others including Dr. John R. Cooley, WMU professor of English and a scholar on Mark Twain.

Carey-Webb says Henry's participation will enhance the discussion as she can offer an African American perspective on teaching the classic novel. Henry, who specializes in Victorian and autobiographical literature, authored a chapter entitled "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in 'Huckleberry Finn'" featured in the 1992 book, "Satire and Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn."

"For many African Americans this is seen as a part of the continuing civil rights struggle," Carey-Webb explains, and states that from a teaching standpoint, it can be an incredible opportunity to create dialogue about racial issues.

"Issues of race are very much on the minds of kids at school, but they are infrequently talked about openly in the classroom," he says. "Kids are concerned about it and want to talk about it in a thoughtful manner with adults. Teaching 'Huckleberry Finn' is an opportunity to develop a more complex way to learn and to initiate that dialogue."

The panel discussion will be followed at 7:30 p.m. by a seminar titled "Twain: Developing the Issues and Contexts." Led by Cooley, the seminar is part of a graduate course he teaches and will be held in the English Lounge, Room 3009 of Brown Hall. The public is invited to join the class.

Carey-Webb has established a Web site providing more information about the controversy that can be found at <http://vms.cc.wmich.edu/~careywebb/huck.html>.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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