In 1998, the NAACP sponsored a petition demanding that the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn be excluded from the compulsory read list of schools because it proved to be psychologically detrimental to the offensive language and the values it contains (NAACP cited by Hentoff). For example, since its publication, the book has been put by parents, students, and scholars at the two ends of the spectrum. The criticisms cover a wide range of arguments: the offensive language used in the book, its morality, the contentious conclusion, the lack of proper grammar usage, and even the novel’s verisimilitude.
Some endorse the idea of banishing the book from public schools, others believe that Huck Finn is a ‘masterpiece’ (Elliot) and should certainly be an integral part of the American schools’ scholarly approach to slavery. Huck Finn should not be excluded from the reading of public schools because, if contextualized and explained by staff members, it can be a valuable opportunity to generate new ideas about the long history of racism and segregation in the US.
Despite its moral questionability, slavery has been part of the history of the United States since the conception of the nation. It was largely accepted by the population and even the Founding Fathers owned slaves (Smithsonian). The first American legal document that questions the institution and bans it from the newly acquired territories is the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 under the Articles of Confederation (Transcript). It represents a significant step forward in the process of the abolition of slavery and the first step toward a split that will then cause the Civil war.
This terrible and brutal war was fought between the Northern abolitionist states, the Union, and the Southern states, the Confederacy (Aftershock). Abraham Lincoln, president at the time, issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, two years into the war. The document freed the slaves held in the Confederate states and allowed them to fight with Union soldiers in the war (Emancipation). Finally, in 1865, at the end of the war, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were passed to ensure the abolishment of slavery, the conferment of citizenship to slaves, the equal protection under the law for all Americans and black male suffrage. However, despite the passing of such progressive legislation, the Amendments were not enforced until a century after.
The period that followed was the Reconstruction, where even if black people were legally free, the state legislatures consistently passed laws aimed to limit their freedom and their rights called Black Codes (Black). Violence, racism, and tensions made life in the South unlivable for ex-slaves and Republican abolitionists, but the situation did not change until 1877 when Reconstruction officially ended (Aftershock). President Rutherford B. Hayes reached a compromise in Congress with the Democrats and the troops were finally withdrawn from the South (Aftershock). Even if the end of this period is dem, attracted by this date, discrimination and violence kept occurring in the South until the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in the 1960s.
The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century represented a conflictual era for African Americans. Segregation was accepted and the doctrine of “separate but equal”, established by the majority opinion in the Supreme Court case Plessy V. Ferguson, was largely applied (History). Many activists struggled to fight for black people’s rights until 1954, when Thurgood Marshall won the case Brown V. Board of Education, ending racial segregation, and eventually becoming the first African American Associate Supreme Court Justice (Thurgood). Thanks to the repeated efforts of black and white activists, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson (Civil Rights Act). This document sparked the passing of other many laws that, currently, are referred to as Hate Crime laws; the last Hate Crime Act was passed by Congress in 2009 and signed by President Obama (Hate).
Because of the sequence of events that occurred between the publication of Huck Finn in 1885 and now, the perspective that contemporary society has toward slavery and racism has changed. Current societal ideas make the public aware of discrimination and immorality, an element that enhances the comprehension of books like Huck Finn. A 21st-century student reading the book, will most probably not support the institution of slavery and the treatment that people received at the time because of the color of their skin. For instance, when the book was published, even if the 13th Amendment had constitutionally freed former slaves, the societal approach to slavery and black people were still inhumane and the usage of offensive epithets was still common. For this reason, understanding the satirical irony contained in the book was fundamental for the comprehension of the novel. On the contrary, in the current era, the societal vision on the topic has shifted into a new, more open, and humane approach, that facilitates the study of the book.
Because of its controversy, Huck Finn represents the perfect book to create healthy debates and discussions regarding avoided topics. Many critics find the book confusing and corrupting, and propose the teaching of other novels, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Smiley 460). However, the book was written to trigger an internal reaction in the reader that is not caused by the brutality of the situations described or by the verisimilitude of the book (Lester 366), but by personal moral judgment. This technique allows the audience to be able to question the derogatory language used toward slaves, the role of black people in society, and the religious hypocrisy of white community members. For instance, the book should be used as a way to create dialogue regarding the topics of the book itself (Ganz). The repetition of the word serves as a constant reminder of the atrocity that slavery and racism were.