By Stella Heo and Shrida Pandey, Staff Writers
// Students gather in a classroom to read and analyze their class text. White students, Asian students, African American students are of equal rank in the classroom, but once they open their book, the African American students are put in the shadows. Written in the book is an unfortunate truth of American history.
Acalanes Union High School District (AUHSD) is removing Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the approved reading list effective in the 2020-2021 school year.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is set in the early 1800s and follows a young boy named Huck Finn as he makes a long journey down the Mississippi River with his companion, the runaway slave, Jim.
The concerns regarding the racial slang in the novel, especially the use of the n-word 219 times, have spanned over ten years in the AUHSD. On Nov. 13, Associate Superintendent Aida Glimme put an end to this controversy, emailing teachers regarding the removal of Huck Finn.
“There has been controversy since it was first published, and it’s a book that has been talked about quite a bit in this district for over a decade with the conversation intensifying the last few years,” Superintendent John Nickerson said.
The removal has met mixed reactions among staff. Even those who don’t teach English had strong opinions about the book.
“At the district diversity meetings and diversity summits, this has been a topic for students over the past three to four years. Listening to our students and staff of color share their experiences with the book has been really powerful. As a white educator, I think it is important to listen and then act,” Leadership teacher Katherine Walton said.
The forceful reaction from teachers is in part because the district did not consult them before the ultimate decision was made to remove Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum.
“We had meetings but we never sat down with those teachers who actually teach Huck…you know just sat down in a room and talked about why,” English teacher Ken Derr said. “After the decision was made we would have felt like well, we said our piece, and we tried to explain why we think this is a valuable text even if it is at times uncomfortable and even if they had made the decision, at least we would have had that specific input.”
Some suggested other books that could have the same value as Huckleberry Finn.
“Beloved would be one that I would put on that list by Tony Morrison. Frederick Douglas has written some really important things too, so for me, it’s not a book that I teach, and it’s mainly because of my background,” English teacher and English Department Chair Cathy Challacombe said.
Challacombe grew up towards the end of the Jim Crow era in Texas. To her, the strong racial slurs hit close to home.
“I have memories of what segregation was doing. I have people that I grew up with that were white, that were racist and used the n-word, that took a book like Huck Finn as not understanding that it’s satirical content, and I think there are plenty of people out there who use the word, whites that use the word to hurt others,” Challacombe said. “I just can’t make it through the book.”
The strong slurs were especially detrimental to African American students.
“This book affects me personally being a black female because any time the n-word is present, I can only focus on my displacement in the school. The n-word is offensive and brings up a lot of painful memories for me,” Black Student Union President Jaedyn Boynton said.
Others were opposed to removing the book but understood the rationale behind the decision.
“I think we understand [the administration’s] position. We don’t all necessarily agree with it, but here we are,” Derr said.
Some teachers feared that removing Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum would lead to the removal of other texts.
“Once you ban one are you are opening the floodgates or is this an isolated text with a history of controversy,” Derr said.
Only about five teachers teach Huckleberry Finn in the district. One reason why teachers use the book is to analyze racism. They believe that Huckleberry Finn helps open a dialogue about race that many students are sheltered from.
“We talked about different ways that we can help be part of a solution to issues surrounding race in our community. The unit as a whole was very eye-opening and important for us to learn, especially since we are rarely exposed to the topic living where we do,” senior Erin Hemmenway said.
Removing the book has worried some students about the implications of not having those discussions
“As a black student, I want to see these conversations still happening even if we’re not reading Huck Finn, so we need to find a replacement,” junior Madison Payne said.
However, for some students, discussions provoked by Huckleberry Finn are unique to the book and can not be substituted.
“[Removing the book] is almost like erasing a part of our history that we are not proud of. I think it is important to read because it allows us to learn about the issues that were prevalent then and are still partly an issue now,” junior Kelly Sarica said.
Others disagreed and felt the language and historical context behind the book were inappropriate.
“[The n-word] has a lot of negative history behind it, and it being written by a white man causes some confusion for me personally,” Boynton said.
Some students felt that the book was ill-suited for learning because of the reoccurring use of racial stereotypes against African Americans.
“It’s an outdated book and entirely unnecessary for the curriculum. I know many people will argue that it’s important that we don’t ignore our history, but there are plenty of other books describing our history that we don’t read, including books written by African Americans,” Acalanes Student Body President Maddie Wilson said.
The removal of Huckleberry Finn is not a ban, as the book will still be available in the Acalanes library. However, there is skepticism that students will choose to read the book outside of class.
“Many people don’t even have the time or want to read a book, and compiled with the fact that it’s like super old, no one’s really going to read it anymore,” junior Lena Johnson said.
Despite the removal of Huck Finn, there are still other books with racial slurs approved by AUHSD. Books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men have anti-African American slurs. For some students, only removing Huckleberry Finn is hypocritical
“I don’t understand why Huckleberry Finn is not in the approved reading list, but To Kill a Mockingbird is. It doesn’t make sense to me as they both use the same language,” sophomore Kyle Thomason said.
The administration acknowledged the similarity in language but are not planning on removing other texts.
“I’ve been told that there’s a very different feeling when reading Of Mice and Men versus Huck Finn for our black students, but I haven’t heard any conversation about removing To Kill a Mockingbird from our curriculum,” Nickerson said.
Although removing Huckleberry Finn was a controversial and small step, the district hopes that further measures will be taken to diversify the English curriculum.
“I think this gets us closer,” Associate Superintendent Amy McNamara said.