How to Teach Race Through Huck Finn, Without Rewriting It

Reader Tim Jones-Yelvington offers a course guide.

By Kai Wright Jan 07, 2011

A reporter asked me an interesting question about the ["Huckleberry Finn" controversy]( the other day: Could it be that, the specifics of language aside, Mark Twain’s work is really more appropriate for college than grade school? Isn’t the material more complex and challenging than makes sense for grade school lit, regardless of whether Jim’s a "nigger" or a "slave"? I demurred that I’m neither a Twain scholar nor an educator. The main point for me is kids are living these complexities from an early age. The only question is whether we’re addressing them in our education system. But Colorlines reader **Tim Jones-Yelvington** offers a reading of "Huckleberry Finn" that sounds to me like an excellent jump off for a high school class on race in America. (Tim’s talking about it in pretty academic language, but there’s no reason the conversation can’t be translated for teenagers). >I think like w/ TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, there’s a mythology amongst white liberals that Huck Finn is this great antiracist text when in actuality it is one that is highly flawed (flawed as antiracism, am not speaking to artistic concerns necessarily), one that demonstrates a lot of the limitations that come from its having been authored by a historically situated person of privilege. > >In addition to some caricature issues w/ Jim’s character, the book revolves around a white person’s epiphany. That epiphany is limited — from what I can remember, it’s more abt Jim’s exceptionalism (the Uncle Tom thing) than a broader realization about systemic injustice, and it doesn’t question or seek to transform the underlying logic that structures racism (Jim is "white on the inside"). But I don’t think any of that means it’s without "literary merit" (a term I actually kind of hate) or historical import. > >I actually think it would be interesting to do a kind of critical whiteness studies–through literature course that teaches some of these limited or problematic texts abt race by white authors — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem — maybe Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingam Jail abt the problems of white liberal allies. And look not just at the texts themselves but also the various controversies around their reception at various points historically and currently. That sounds like an interesting class to me.