John Foley figures he has pretty much maxed out on explaining to African American mothers why it’s OK to call a black man the N-word–as long as it’s in a novel that is considered a classic.
For years, English teachers have been explaining away the obvious racism in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And for years, the book that perhaps best explains Americans’ genetic predilection for hitting the road, only to later find themselves, has stayed near the top of many high school reading lists.
However, with an African American about to be inaugurated as president, Foley wonders whether ‘Huck Finn’ ought to be sent back down the river. Why not replace it with a more modern, less discomfiting novel documenting the epic journey of discovery?
“The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms,” Foley wrote in a guest column this month for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.”
Foley, 48, teaches at a largely white suburban high school near Portland, Ore. Year after year, he said, he patiently explains to his students that Jim, a black man, is actually the hero of the novel, and that Huck comes to see the error of his ways and commits to helping Jim escape slavery. But many of them find the book dull and plodding, and they sometimes never get past the demeaning word Huck uses to refer to his friend.
“This is particularly true, of course, of African American students,” Foley wrote. “With few exceptions, all the black students in my classes over the years have appeared very uncomfortable when I’ve discussed these matters at the beginning of the unit. And I never want to rationalize ‘Huck Finn’ to an angry African American mom again as long as I breathe.”
He also thinks “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s classic about racial inequity in the Deep South, and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” should be removed from the curriculum for similar reasons.
Foley said he doesn’t want to ban the books. He just thinks they shouldn’t be the backbone of the American literature curriculum in 2009, he said, at a time when getting kids to read anything at all is a struggle.
“You have to remember, it’s hard to sell kids these days on books. I write young adult novels, and sometimes I wonder, why bother? You’re writing for three girls who like to read.”