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Sunday Soliloquy: Blackwashing An American Classic April 25, 2010

From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, illustrations by Edward W. Kemble

The library books I wanted to check out were heavy in my arms.  Stacked up so high that I could hardly see over the top of them.  Thankfully, I had the smarts to tuck my library card in my mouth before I picked up the books.  This would allow the librarian easy access without my having to dig through the pockets of my Toughskins jeans.  I was a young girl of nine and at the time books were my only source of adventure.  When school let out for the summer all I had was that library. But this summer would be different.  In a month, I would be going to visit my big military careered brother who was stationed in Germany. As the librarian counted my books, I smiled at the Berlitz book on Germany.

Everything was going fine until my mother who emerged from the ladies room, decided to come over to the checkout desk and act parental.  Normally she never cared about what I read.   I would bounce from Henry Higgins to Harold Robbins and she never cared much.  Really, if I could count how many times a librarian raised an eyebrow at young Afrocity’s choice of reading material it would be more than my ten fingers and toes.   I had free run of the publishing world until this summer day…. As I said, everything was proceeding to plan until my mother began inspecting the spine titles of the stack of books that the librarian had already due date stamped.  Towards the middle of the stack, she winced and pulled a green cloth bound book out so fast that it did not disturb the stacks neat straight lines.

“She won’t be taking this…discharge it.”

Oddly, the librarian looked at me for approval.

I shook my head thinking mother must have believed I would not be able to read the book in time before my trip to Germany, then the book would sit in my bedroom overdue. She would have to tote the book back for me… “I promise I will read it before I go,”  I protested. ” The movie is coming on Family Classics on Sunday. I want to read the book first-“

Mother pursed her lips and glanced at me crossly “You will never read this book,” she ordered. ” This book makes fun of black people. It has a slave in it who is an Uncle Tom. He follows a piece of white trash name Huckleberry Finn.  Huck treats him like an animal.”

Mother’s voice was not loud but audible to the librarian who had stopped mid air with the date due stamp in her hand.

“You will never read anything by Mark Twain,” she continued. “Not in school. Not from the library. You will never see movies about Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer.”

A big gulp was in my throat, so I said something manipulative to placate her.  Even then I always felt I was smarter than she.  I read a lot more than she did.  She let me see Roots and it had slaves in it too.  She let me watch Bing Crosby movies and she said he was a racist…And what about Rochester on the Jack Benny Show…Mother always laughed at him and to me he looked like a slave… Besides we trusted  Frazier Thomas.

But it is on Family Classics Frazier Thomas said it is a classic that all kids should read-”  Yep that was my line of defense and all mom’s trusted Fraizer Thomas .

Frazier Thomas  is the local WGN Chicago guy with the mellow voice and pretty books in his library. He taught me about Swiss Family Robinson, Black Beauty and Pippa Longstocking.  Now he wants to teach me about Huckleberry Finn and mother is saying I cannot check out the book or see the movie on Sunday and I never miss an episode of Family Classics.

“Frazier Thomas is a white man who reads to white kids.”  Mother fired back. “You think he would have you at his house. Do you think he is reading to you?  Has he ever read a book about a black family? “

I shrugged my shoulders. The honest answer would have been no but I did not want her to be right.

“…and what about that movie we saw at the theater that you hated?” she asked.  “the one with the black man that was on that island with the prejudiced old white man?”

Mother was referring to a Disney movie that we saw the week previous to my summer recess.  It was about Robinson Crusoe and a black guy named Friday.  To my nine year old eyes, the movie was boring and the white man appeared to be very mean to the black man.  I did not like the movie and was really there for second offering of the double feature-  The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.

“So the book is boring?” I asked.

Mother knowing that I hated with a passion anything that is boring, especially books and movies answered, “Yes it is a very boring book by someone who wants you to feel inferior to white people. It is about white southern trash like the people in Roots. What did I tell you about people in the South?”

I twisted my lip and looked down at the floor.  One of my friends in school was from Mississippi and I liked her.

“What did we say about southerners Afrocity?”

“That they are ignorant and have the worst white people. John F. Kennedy is dead because of them. They shot Martin Luther King. “

I nodded and answered in a defeated tone “I know.”

The Librarian had ignored the line of people wanting to check out books behind us until one impatient young woman purposefully cleared her throat.  Why she decided to butt into my mother’s lecture is beyond me but it was not a smart idea.   “Miss, may I suggest that you consult your daughter’s Chicago Public School principal.  Huckleberry Finn is taught in many schools and teachers are trained-“

Uh-oh, I thought.  At my age I knew what to expect from my mother.  If there was one thing she did not tolerate, it was well meaning white people telling black people how to raise her children.  Yes we were on welfare but that did not give the the right to parent.

Mother stepped closer to the check out desk.  This all struck me as a when shit hits the fan moment.  I was embarrassed already, now I was certain that I would be banned from the library for ever.

“First of all,” she started. ” Call me Ms. How the hell do you know if I am married or not.  Second, my daughter does not attend Chicago Public School, she is in a private Catholic School so your assumption about all black kids and the schools they go to is wrong. I do not give a damn about what my daughter reads as long as it is not something that makes blacks look like fools. “

The green eyed, blond librarian blinked- a lot. She looked like a blond version of Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore show. Somehow I knew she was a good person. I felt sorry for her and this was all of my fault. I should have checked out sooner so Ms. Mother would not have known what I had decided to borrow. Then the books would have been all safe and uncensored in my seersucker book satchel.

Mother took the copy of Huckleberry Finn, flipped through a few pages and found a page she wanted the librarian to see.

“What is this word?” she asked the librarian.

I stood at the desk on my tippy toes hoping to see what she was pointing to on the page.  I saw an illustration of a black man standing in what looked like grass but I could not see the words.

When the librarian looked at the page, she nodded.  “I know what the word is  and I know why you would be upset at the author for using it-“

“Over and over again. Page after page,”  Mother interrupted.

“But it is considered an American classic and my son has read-“

“Does your son look like my daughter?”  On the hostile black woman meter, my mother was about heated seven by this point. “Would you want your son to read a book that called his people Polaks? You are Polish right? “

The librarian chose not to answer. Instead she asked ” Ms. will you be taking your daughters remaining selections?”

Mother browsed my other books for suspect titles.  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was chucked along with a cook book I had chosen about German food. Mother discouraged me from getting cookbooks because they usually led to me begging her to buy some expensive ingredients so I could mess up her clean kitchen and waste our food stamps.

“You will eat plenty of German food while you are in Germany,” she said.

Finding finally a light note to grab on to, the librarian continued stamping my remaining books. Looking at me and me only as if to make my mother disappear she smiled and asked “Are you going to Germany?”

My mother was still closely watching this whole book check out affair and I was frankly afraid to say anything for fear that mother would get reactivated.  My nod was covering my enthusiasm to tell someone, anyone about my upcoming trip.

Well you have a good time…Okay?”  she pushed the pile of now fully stamped books towards me.  I loaded them in my bag. Mother escorted me out of the building.  As we walked to our bus stop our conversation was restrained.  She only asked me if I wanted to stop off to get some orange Push-up sherbet ice cream treats  from the store. Mother was like that. She would talk up a storm in public sometimes then when you thought she’d let me hear it in private- suddenly silence.

I would never watch the Huckleberry Finn movie on Family Classics that upcoming Sunday.  Frazier Thomas had lost all credibility in my household.

I would also never ever read a book by Mark Twain at all.   Mother and I never spoke of the event again.  Lucky for me, Twain was never assigned in my literature course in high school or college.  I really never thought about it again until the other day when I crossed paths with this piece in the Atlantic.

When Great Art Happens to Bad People

Apr 24 2010

By Erik Tarloff

Every few years, it makes the papers: somebody opposes the teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in some high school, or even wants it banned from the local library. The reason, of course, is the book’s frequent use of the word “nigger” (over 200 occurrences, according to people who count such things). When one such incident made a splash sometime in the ’90s, and the minister who was leading the crusade made a large number of appearances on TV and radio, my friend Wendy Lesser, a distinguished literary critic and editor, protested to me, “But he’s missing the whole point!”

She was right, of course. To seize on a single word, even a single word reiterated 200-plus times, without regard to its context or purpose represents a misreading that seems almost willful. But to my mind, defending the teaching of the book on those grounds, while justified on the merits, also misses the whole point, or at least concedes far too much. Because, what if the protest didn’t in fact miss the point? What if Huckleberry Finn actually were a racist book, rather than a non-racist book that permits its characters to speak in an argot appropriate to their time and circumstance? Would the banning then be justified?

Jims Coat of Arms

Thanks to the Atlantic, my memory was jarred.   I paced through the den of my apartment and stood in front of my two large bookshelves.  My deceased mother’s ashes were in a box nearby.  Thoughtfully looking over my library, I found many books that my mother would object to.  Glenn Beck’s A Christmas SweaterFleeced by Dick Morris.   My library is full of a conservative’s arsenal against liberal thought, against welfare, affirmative action…against phony racism.

Rare books, pretty books, cookbooks everything seemed to be there on my shelves.  However, something was missing.  I think it may be time for Afrocity to read something by Mark Twain and though I have the money to buy the book…I think instead I should go to my local library…and check it out for myself.

Autographed Letter Signed,



16 Responses to “Sunday Soliloquy: Blackwashing An American Classic”

  1. manbearpig68 Says:

    This a great story! Did your mother read the book before or was she going off what she had heard about it?

    • afrocity Says:

      LOL Manbearpig that is an excellent question. You know, I never asked her that but I suspect that she had to read it in Catholic School.

  2. Formercorpsman Says:

    Good stuff.

  3. I didn’t like Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer because of the word “Nigger” It is a word that makes me angry but then again I don’t like nor do myself and my children use the term “Poor White Trash” However I only banned my son from one book because of his being senstive to “Roll of Thunder Hear Me Cry” It is a book about a lynching. That kept him awake for days.
    I agree with your mom about white folks telling black folks how to raise our children because frankly I don’t agree with the way Whites are raising their children if I did that my children would be shot by the police. Sorry white people but ya’ll are much to leinent and I spank my kids because sometimes they need that. Spanking is not abuse. Sometims they need that before they need anything else.

    • afrocity Says:

      My mother was a racist. If the book had “jap” in it she would not have cared.
      The Secret Garden always upset me.

  4. yttik Says:

    That is a great story, Afrocity. Nicely told, you had me on the edge of my seat.

    There was a lot of controversy about Huck Finn still going on when I when I was in school. One year the school library tried to edit out all the bad words with black magic marker. Naturally since this was such a controversial and subversive book, I promptly read it.

    I hope you get to check it out. I’d enjoying hearing your book review.

    • afrocity Says:

      Thanks Yttik,

      I think I will read it this summer when I am traveling some. Maybe it was for the best that I waited this long.

  5. Janelle Humbert Says:

    I read these books so long ago that I didn’t even know what that word meant. Or, maybe as a second generation born in this country I was immune or not as concerned about this problem. The more I learned the more irritating and illogical it seemed. The only thing I remember from one is that Finn conned another person into painting the fence he was supposed to paint. And that really didn’t strike me as funny – what a slacker.
    Skin is the building that houses our internal organs.

  6. Holly Says:

    I enjoyed your narrative.

    We had a discussion of language in one of my history courses when we had to read Slave and Citizen. Some of my class members were offended and could barely get through the book because in place of black, the term negro was used. The book was published in 1946. I’m white, my entire class white, and there was only myself and one other gentleman debating the rest of the class on the idea of censorship. They wanted to change the language in the book and all books to fit the language used today, which is ridiculous because it would completely change the arguments and purpose in all peices of literature, whether fiction or non-fiction.

    For hundreds of years blacks sought equality; to shed “nigger” and to be a free human being, man, woman, American. The language of this nation is integral to understanding its history. Every generation of Americans has carried a different burden in this process, but it’s as if my generation, especially whites, want to whitewash language in order to make themselves feel better and they look down on all previous generations like, “If I lived at that time period, I would have never used the language you did.” There is an air of superiority, rather than a seeking to discover, understand, and evolve as a society.

    In fifty years when people look back on our literature, they will be shocked to see reprintings of historical and classic literature that remained untouched until 2010 when, “shh shh…those words never existed.” What the hell was the point in fighting against these words if we can’t even talk about them? If we erase the language, we erase the history behind it.

    • afrocity Says:

      Holly I totally agree with you. You know, not to defend my mother but she may have been against my reading the book because she was closer to that history than I was. My mom was in the camp that you should stop telling black kids they are inferior. Perhaps she felt that she was protecting me from something.

  7. Liz Says:

    Nice story. I’d recommend you read Mark Twain’s work, simply because he’s one of the great American writers. I also recommend a book about his work called “Was Huck black: Mark Twain and African-American Voices”, by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. I was never sure why the writer thought her main point – that Twain was influenced by black writers and friends, and influenced black people in turn – was so revolutionary. Reading the story, I think I get it.

  8. The strange irony is that I know and knew many black people who would have the same objections as your mother but then use the “N” word in casual conversation among themselves as if it were nothing

  9. I think your mother would be more offended by the Glen and Dick’s bad writing and anti- intellectualism more than their political views.

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