Posted by: Nathan | February 4, 2007

Mark Twain uses Racist Language?

Apparently Cedar Rapids public schools have pulled Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from their required reading due to (suprise!) racist language (hat tip: Jason). I don’t have a problem with the decision to take this book off the required reading list, especially since they’re keeping the book in the library so anyone can read it if they choose. Also, I completely understand the impulse to shield our children from racist language.

I have two thoughts on the matter. First, to what length are we going to “protect” our kids from dangerous ideas? Is there racist language in Tom Sawyer? Oh yes. But Twain is not a racist; his fiction uses the stereotypes and language of his time to be sure, but his themes and characters run counter-cultural, especially in his masterpiece Huck Finn. If we are going to shield our teens from racist language, what’s next? Violence? Sex? Death? War? Suicide? Euthanasia? Injustice? All of these themes are some of the most important in literature. Literature is made of the stuff of life, and life isn’t always happy endings and weddings. My approach would be to teach the book in such a way as to enlighten the kids about what society was like when Twain composed Tom Sawyer,* help them identify what’s racist about the novel and what’s not, and lead them to a more complete understanding of life (this is how I was taught the novel in 6th grade). Am I proud that the U.S. has a racist past? No, but it’s still a part of our history.

Secondly, how can these teachers be surprised by the racist language in Tom Sawyer? Even the most rudimentary readers of American Lit know this. Heck, people who have never read Twain know this. This is a telling quote: “But administrators who re-read Tom Sawyer found racist language, a liberal sprinkling of the ‘N word’ and other stereotypes about African Americans.” Get OUT!  Seriously, if our lit teachers in middle school don’t know this most basic of literary knowledge, I fear for our children.

Perhaps the best part of this article is the reaction the kids have:

“‘I’m used to hearing bad words and stuff, so I read right over it,’ said 8th grader Kaitlyn Thomas.” Oh Kaitlyn, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“‘It’s just telling about our history and stuff, it’s just telling the truth,’ said eighth-grader Daniel Dahms.” A young sage.

Finally, this line: “As for the ‘N word’, [sic] students say you hear it more times on one rap song that you’d read in all of Tom Sawyer.” When will the so-called opponents of racism take on the plague of racist and sexist stereotypes that is rap “music?” Their hypocrisy is unspeakable.

Don’t have an opinion about Twain? Read him! He’s nothing if not enjoyable; just ask Kyle.

*I did see that one of the reasons this book was pulled was so teachers of literature wouldn’t have to teach history as well. Umm…I don’t know how they do that to begin with.


  1. Great post!

  2. I’d agree that if they don’t want to make it required, that’s fine…but they’d better never pull his books from the library…then there would need to be a throw-down

  3. The book is racist. The only black people depicted in Twain’s novels are magical negros who exist solely to provide a backdrop against which white people look good. They are not given the depth of complexity or emotional range that white people are given. They are treated as plot devices rather than characters. That is racist.

  4. I agree that literature cannot always be roses and sunshine, and that when books are banned because they highlight harsh realities, it gives us a false sense of what’s real. I, personally, couldn’t write any book where a group of people were given slurs, but nontheless it happened and it was real. I’m glad we have perspectives we wouldn’t normally choose such as American Psycho, and countless other movies, books, or video games. Perspective makes us objective. Wow. I’m rambling. The one thing in this article I didn’t think was necessary was the connection with rap music. Rappers aren’t the voice of anti-racism. Because SOME rap music uses offensive language and racist words that “black people can use but white people can’t use yada yada”, people think that other bad choices of the word somehow get the nod. Of course, the heart of this post wasn’t about that, and I assume my opinion is based more so on speculation on what the tidbit about rap music was supposed to imply rather on perhaps a different point of view. Anywho, I’ll conclude by saying that we have come along way and I’m happy that we have finally taken steps to become a more equal society.

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