Huckleberry Finn in the 11th grade? Gimme a break!

Published 10:53 pm Wednesday, February 5, 2003

By By Lloyd Albritton
I've been trying to "chill" since I got into my middle-aged years, to not let the little things upset me as much as they used to. Stress will kill a man, you know, and most of the things we stress out over we can't do anything about anyway. But, my chill plan went all awry last week when I read the news story about the Seventh Grader at Ransom Middle School in Pensacola whose mother complained that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn made her child feel uncomfortable because it contained the "N" word.
The teacher has been assigning her class this American classic for many years without complaint. And even now, it is not the whole class or the whole neighborhood who is complaining, but one child and one mother. Still, the school principal has stated that he is not willing for even one child to be made to feel uncomfortable and has banned the use of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom. When the story surfaced, school board officials agreed that Seventh Grade students are too young to understand precisely what Mark Twain was trying to say in his famous novel and have banned the use of Huckleberry Finn as a class reading assignment until the Eleventh Grade. I can't wait for John Stossel to do his Gimme A Break! series on this story. In fact, let me be one of the first to echo Stossel's favorite line, "GIMME A BREAK!"
I'm certain it was no later than the Fourth or Fifth Grade that I read about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and I enjoyed these books immensely. I even went out and tried to build a raft and float down Brushy Creek on it, just like Huck and Jim floated down the Mississippi River. I searched for caves in the woods, hoping to find one like Tom and Becky got lost in. I never found a cave and my raft broke apart and sunk, but few stories ever incited my imagination like Mark Twain's adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. These stories appeal to the imaginations of children young enough to be interested in caves and rafts and dead rats on a string. Are eleventh grade students interested in such things? Isn't that a little late to be reading about the adventures of Tom and Huck?
Did I understand what Mark Twain was trying to say? No, I didn't. And further, I still don't understand what Mark Twain was trying to say because I'm not so sure he was trying to say anything at all. I thought he was just trying to tell an entertaining story about some small-town, childhood adventures during a certain time in history when life was simpler than it is today.
During the course of history, times change, attitudes change and society changes. I remember discussing Goeffrey Chaucer in high school literature and snickering along with some of my classmates when we read and discussed a Chaucer story about a woman "farting." Some of the girls in the class felt a little uncomfortable, but our wise teacher guided us to an understanding that this story should be taken in the perspective in which it was written.
History is replete with events, topics and words which are uncomfortable to read about. Certainly no words in the English language could be more objectionable and uncomfortable than "war" and "death," but how can we discuss history without discussing war and death? Should we be referring to these words as the "W" word, or the "D" word? What about the old drunken Injun who tried to murder Tom and Becky in the cave? Can we say Injun? Or must we refer only to the "I" word. And what about the six million J's who were murdered in the holocaust? Is anybody uncomfortable with that topic? I am! Yet, it happened and can only be understood by reading and studying about it in the context in which it happened.
Racial bigotry toward any race of people is a bad thing in any society and America has made a lot of obvious progress in the advancement of racial tolerance. But, must the cost of this progress be historical ignorance? A recent study revealed that most graduating college students today are less knowledgeable about history than Junior High School students were fifty years ago. Is this because we have become so sensitive and uncomfortable with the facts of history that we can't even teach history anymore? Is it important for literature students to know that Edgar Allen Poe was a manic-depressive and a drug addict to better understand his writing? Or should we be protecting them from such uncomfortable facts? If Mark Twain's stories about the adventures of Huckleberry Finn were modified to refer to the runaway slave, Jim, as "African American Jim," would not that detract from the historical accuracy and perspective of the entire story? Can't we be sensitive without being idiots? Gimme a break!
Lloyd Albritton publishes a series of commentaries on the Internet entitled The Albritton Letters at He can be contacted at

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