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Political Correctness, Then and Now

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As Time magazine’s July 14 cover story acknowledges, Mark Twain was a dangerous man in his day. In a time when the notion of black inferiority was taken for granted, Twain not only suggested that all men are created equal (as his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson did), but also that moral people are capable of transcending racial barriers.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, often called “the Great American Novel,” is the story of a boy who rejects societal values in order to help a slave escape to freedom in Illinois. Since Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885, it was no wonder that “people hated the book…Twain himself wrote that the book's banners considered the novel ‘trash and suitable only for the slums,’” as Time noted.

Unfortunately, most children today will never read Huckleberry Finn, which is still considered by many to be “trash.” A century ago, Huckleberry Finn was censored for challenging slavery and segregation. But today, the controversy boils down to a single word: the runaway slave whom Huckleberry Finn befriends is referred to as “nigger Jim.”

Nevermind the fact that Twain portrayed Jim as intelligent and sensitive, while most of the whites who preface his name with the n-word are redneck ne’er-do-wells. Nevermind that Huck ultimately rejects all institutions that promote slavery, including his church, and helps Jim flee up the Mississippi River. And nevermind that the use of the slur accurately reflected the way many whites talked about blacks at the time—Twain held up a mirror to nineteenth-century society, and society didn’t like it one bit.

None of it matters. In fact, according to the American Library Association, few books have been attacked as often as Huckleberry Finn. Since the public schools have been seized by dumbed-down political correctness, teachers are so worried that someone might hyperventilate at the sight of the n-word that they’ve banned America’s greatest anti-racist novel from the classroom.

Their fear is understandable, since teachers who use the book are often ostracized and punished. Last fall, when a Dallas-area English teacher wrote the n-word word on the chalkboard and tried to engage her class in a discussion about racist labels, she was reprimanded and forced to write a letter of apology—because parents complained that the lesson was “hurtful.”

Just last week, outside the Renton School District office in Washington, protestors chanted “Nigger, nigger, out the door, don’t call us niggers anymore!” As one former student explained, “I was beyond offended…Basically we had a discussion for two weeks about the the n-word, and it was extensive…It was really offensive, really degrading.” She must have missed the passage in which Huck declares that he’d rather go to hell than turn on Jim.

Needless to say, in college classrooms, the Great American Novel isn’t considered so great anymore. In my four years at Ohio University, I was never required to read Huckleberry Finn. Instead, English professors prefer to assign the work of third-rate contemporary authors who whine about how awful their lives in America have been. One popular selection is Killing Rage by Bell Hooks, in which the author declares, “I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.” For Hooks, there is no possibility of racial harmony; America is an incurably racist society in which a black man can never get a fair deal, let alone befriend a white man.

Twain demonstrated—both through his writing and his real-life friendship with a former slave—that this doesn’t have to be the case. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that many children, educated in schools where political correctness reigns supreme, are never going to hear. 

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