I’ve often wondered where the impulse toward censorship comes from. The desire to sanitize the past, to make a break, is an inclination found across cultures. Think of Stalin airbrushing Trotsky from photographs, or the French Republican calendar, in which months and days of the week were renamed to remove the influence of the Ancien Régime.
This is why I looked on not with worry but with resignation when last month I read in the Inquirer that Friends’ Central School decided to drop “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain from its 11th grade curriculum.
In case you haven’t read it lately, “Huck Finn” is the story of a boy who flees his abusive father by rafting down the Mississippi River in the company of an escaped slave, Jim. According to the American Library Association, it is one of the Top 20 most challenged books. Today, it is largely challenged because of its use of the “N-word.”
Indeed, “The book’s use of the ‘N-word’ was challenging for some students, who felt the school was not being inclusive,” Friends’ principal Art Hall told the Inquirer.
While our current concerns about racism may play a role in removing this book, it is useful to remember that Huck Finn has been challenged almost continuously since its publication in 1884. Until recently, it was often challenged not for its racism, but for its progressive view of interracial friendship between characters Huck who is white and Jim who is black.
Huck Finn is a difficult book, sure. My father and I spent one winter reading each other a chapter a night in elementary school, and we both found ourselves pausing over certain words. But it has a clear moral message. Huck frets that helping another man’s “property” escape is a grave sin that will send him straight to hell. Yet he decides to help Jim anyway, reasoning that to help his friend escape is the right thing to do.
It’s impossible to read “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” absent from its historical context, yet that seems to be what Friends’ Central School has done. They have let current concerns about inclusive language trump the moral of the story. They have tried to wipe the slate clean from the messy scrawl of the past.
I can’t say I blame them. The past is distinctly uncomfortable. It reminds us of the mutability of our present views, the ways in which our politics can change. It’s the same motivation that led the Romans to practice damnatio memoriae. For them, effacing the past was the ultimate reproach. I think we do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to read Twain as a product of his time, when we expect the past to conform to modern notions and properties.
Benjamin Winkler is a sophomore political science and spanish major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.