I’m a huge fan of Mark Twain, including the gut-bustingly hilarious
“Innocents Abroad” and the essays printed after his death about why
heaven was boring. (One reason: no orgasms.)
And I’m not someone who supports banning books, or banning books from schools.
But it’s also a terrible idea to have kids the age of Tom Sawyer actually read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Even if you cut out the N-word.
We’re a biracial family – Asian and white. One kid is adopted from China and the other from India. Both consider themselves “brown.”
So, when I started reading “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to the kids, I explained that Twain used the offensive word “nigger” throughout because he was reflecting common usage even though blacks in the book were represented respectfully. I told them I would say “black” instead of the N-word because I didn’t want to say the N-word.
And off we went, me in a big chair and the kids under huge mounds of rumpled, cozy blankets. They loved the list of stuff that Tom had in his pockets – it was a long list and they had their own long list of nonsensical trinkets in their pockets.
They laughed as a frustrated and frazzled Aunt Polly tried to keep energetic Tom in line. They laughed again at the sleepy dog who wandered into a church service,
put his droopy head on a beetle, got bit and dashed yelping from church.
But then we hit Tom’s conversation with Huck, which started innocently enough with a wart cure. Rainwater from tree stump would do it, Tom said, saying that “Johnny told Jim Hollis, and Jim told Ben Rogers, and Ben told a nigger, and the nigger told me. There now!”
Huck responds: “Well, what of it? They’ll all lie. Leastways all but the nigger. I don’t know him. But I never see a nigger that wouldn’t lie....."
I looked at my dark-skinned daughter – who has had struggles with honesty typical of a 9-year-old. Her face looked blank. It hurt her so much she shut down.
She got up out bed, said in a flat voice: “I’m going downstairs to Daddy.” She went to the living room and sat in his lap.
I pressed on reading to Son, who frankly is quite light, but it was the last night we read that book.
What age is it that kids should read books that insult them? The word “nigger” is insulting. It was demeaning when Twain wrote it, and it’s demeaning now. I don’t read books that endlessly and casually insult women, and I don’t bother with a long list of dumb Hollywood movies for the same reason.
It’s clear to me that “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” is not for 9- and 10-year-olds, even though Twain, writing in the 1870s, lovingly describes in rich detail life in a particular small town. Son saw himself in those boys but he’s too young for the book.
I don’t know middle schoolers but wouldn’t press it on any but the most sophisticated of them, and I wouldn’t suggest it to a black teen.
In fact, I would understand if anyone of any age – and especially anyone black – told me that they just couldn’t get past the N-word and the casual insults and racism in the book. It’s undeniably a great book but nobody needs to get slapped in the face repeatedly with that. Nobody.