Monday, June 22, 2020

Toni Morrison Taught Me the Challenge Is Worth It: Teach Twain for Anti-Racism

By Michael Otieno Molina

My beloved community of teachers, if you feel motivated to change the world after the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests that followed, anti-racism is your next step. Anti-racism means that you do everything you can to expose, expel, and exorcise racism from your classroom and your campus, and then do everything you can to promote racial equity. Being non-racist is not enough. As Dr. King once said, "true peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice."

If you are doubtful that the current wave of desire to do something meaningful will last, you have good reason to doubt. Anti-racism is hard work, especially in the classroom. One of the best ways to prepare to sustain that work is to understand how difficult it is. That's where Twain comes in.

Teaching Twain for anti-racism was one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges of my teaching life. For four years, I taught Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at an elite Baltimore independent school that once barred Black folks like me from being students or teachers. I taught the book one year after uprisings against the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody ripped open festering racial wounds in this deeply segregated southern-most, northern city. Here are the top three things I learned.

  1. Huck Finn is not for middle school. High schoolers are more ready for its complexity.
  2. Teach the Norton Critical edition that has critical essays in the back, including the Toni Morrison essay I'll discuss here.
  3. Deal with the "n-word" before students begin reading.

For Generations, teachers have taught Huck Finn and have tried to convince students, concerned parents, and colleagues that the use of the radioactive "n-word" was Twain capturing the essence of an historical period in America. Those teachers were at best irresponsible and at worst disingenuous. Twain's rampant use of the "n-word" is indefensible. Yet, even at his most overtly racist, Twain's joke was almost always on the notion of Whiteness itself.

Huck Finn is a realistic portrayal of White people's attempts at anti-racism. The book itself is an example of what it asserts. Through it, Twain shows how perilous, difficult, and self-defeating White anti-racist action can be, while showing how necessary that action still is. Again, a key to understanding how to teach Huck Finn is to understand that its existence is the best example of its message; it is a racist book written by a writer with clear anti-racist aspirations.

First, we have to acknowledge the racism.

Twain was a self-publisher and had complete editorial control over his work. He chose to use Edward Kemble for illustrations. Kemble was popular for drawing racist caricature that drew upon the wide appeal of minstrelsy (see the Earl F. Biden critical essay "Kemble's Specialty and the Pictoral Countertext of Huck Finn" and see an example of Kemble's work from Huck Finn at left). According to professor Andrew Levy, author of the book Huck Finn's America, Twain was an ardent fan of minstrelsy as a way to use humor to safely ridicule social norms in the manner of a Shakespearean jester. Some might argue Twain saw himself as a sort of jester. However, Twain ignored the lasting damage of the negative stereotypes about Black people that were core to minstrelsy, and he was too smart a man for us to claim he just didn't know better. Twain also shackled Jim with exaggerated "negro dialect"(his words), while giving Jim the submissive nature of the "noble savage" literary stereotype. Twain then riddled the book with 217 utterances of the toxic "n-word", a frequency that is ultimately inexcusable even in the 1890s. Levy suggests such by noting that Twain would not utter the word out loud when reading from Huck Finn in front of the Black audiences of his day. He knew better.

So Mark Twain was clearly a racist, right? It's complicated.

Mark Twain believed in reparations. When he paid for the room and board of the first Black Yale Law student, Warner T. McGuin (pictured left), from 1885-87, Twain wrote a letter to Yale Law dean Francis Wayland explaining why he did it. He wrote that "[White men] have ground the manhood out of [Black men], & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it," before vowing to pay tuition for another Black law student. But Twain didn't stop there. He paid the tuition of a Black student at Lincoln University, America's first Historically Black College. Twain paid for the European apprenticeship of a Black sculptor and interceded on behalf of Frederick Douglass when president James A. Garfield wanted to remove him from a political post. These acts are textbook anti-racist reparations - an open and purposeful redistribution of the economic and social capital of America's most famous White writer on behalf of Black students, artists, and leaders.

Because of all this complexity, teaching Twain was a profound and confounding challenge. Is he racist? Is he anti-racist? Is he both, and if so, what does that tell us about the challenge of White anti-racism? I was pretty lost until the great Dr. Toni Morrison explained how and why to understand Twain's work in her essay about Huck Finn entitled "This Amazing, Troubling Book."

The short story is this: Twain exposed White America's historical supremacist delusion of its mythical White identity as a race of Christian bearers of civilization and promoters of progress. The experience of Black America shines a giant white-hot spotlight on that delusion and Morrison, being a teacher's teacher on top of being one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, turned that spotlight on Huck Finn. Morrison, the great literary critic she was, found a treasure trove of insights on race in America.

In "This Amazing, Troubling Book", Morrison calls Huck Finn "classic literature" highlighting the substantial beauty and literary merit of Twain's terse, evocative, lyrical language. Morrison also calls out American schools for trying to "amputate the problem" of Huck Finn, a book that "heaves, manifests, and lasts." She also argues that the real problem of children reading a book with the "n-word" written 217 times is due to lack of a "serious, comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher." Some of us might be saying ouch right now. Clearly, we should deal directly with the weight of that word before students begin reading Huck Finn.

Responding to Toni Morrison's call, here is the pre-work my classes did to prepare to engage with the radioactive "n-word". This took about 80 minutes of class time with homework and some interactive, blended learning elements. We did all this before we read one word of Huck Finn.

  1. Distinguish and contextualize the word's present day ironic use in Black communities by individually listening (with headphones) to the music video for Jay-Z's "The Story of OJ".
  2. As a class, discuss the ironic use of the imagery of minstrelsy in the video and how those images reinforce and undermine the stereotypes associated with the "n-word". You must also address the anti-Semitic stereotype Jay-Z uses and his response to criticism. Have the class consider whether Jay-Z was being ironic when he said Jewish people "own all the property in America."
  3. Discuss why the word is repeatedly uttered in the chorus and why Jay-Z suggests that regardless of a Black person's character or success, they will be seen as 'still n####'.
  4. Use a modified consensus process (with the teacher as the final decision-maker) to discuss whether to say the word out loud. 
  5. Poll students anonymously. 
  6. When giving the verdict on whether to utter it or not (spoiler alert-NOT), I shared a personal story of the psychic and physical violence connected to the use of the word in the segregated New Orleans my parents grew up in and the integrated New Orleans I grew up in. Here is that story recorded at a Baltimore public storytelling event called Stoop Stories: ( 
  7. Play the above Stoop Story (11 min.) or assign for homework to again acknowledge the historical and present day weight of the word.

Finally, as a class, decide what to replace the word with. Discuss the different ways schools, districts, and publishers have dealt with it in the past. Ultimately, we decided that we would not replace the word with the word "slave" or "n-word" or any other euphemism. We would pause in silence to recognize the weight of the word, then continue reading out loud. I thanked them for agreeing to this respectful solution.

One thing to consider is that a student might attempt to say the word anyway as a protest, a joke, or just to be a jerk. In order to cut that off at the pass, my anti-racism muscle kicked in. I made it clear that no student in a class taught by me would ever be allowed to trigger the deep psychological violence associated with that word as it was used against me and my ancestors or any of their Black peers and their ancestors by calling up the racist power of the word by breathing life into the idea of "n#####". It wouldn't happen on my watch, and it shouldn't happen on yours. Take that personally, and if a student crosses that line they must accept the consequences.

Two other thoughts for teachers who may feel they don't have enough class time to do this much work before reading the book: First, much of that work can happen virtually, asynchronously, or in a blended learning context to save time. More importantly, the above seven steps, the Jay-Z song, and the Morrison article seed understanding of the literary device of irony, one of the most difficult for students (and many adults) to grasp. You will find that students understand irony better, which is helpful because irony is Twain's most effective anti-racist tool in Huck Finn.

Once reading begins, you could engage any of the following anti-racist insights that Toni Morrison's critical essay about Huck Finn offers:

  1. The impossibility of Huck and Jim having a healthy friendship at the end of the book (even after they have gone through so much together) makes the story an allegory for the lost friendships that many contemporary Black and White students experience when the reality of America's ongoing struggle with segregation kicks in.
  2. Huck's silence in the face of Jim's dehumanization, until the very end, has disastrous consequences. Those consequences extend to Huck's own stunted emotional and moral growth. Huck's silence serves as a metaphor for the consequences of silence in the face of contemporary racism. 
  3. Huck's complicity in racism against Jim was a cover up for the ever-present threat of ostracization, retribution, and violence against anti-racist allies in White society during slavery and, in some circumstances, now. 

I'll add this specific practice I use from my own experience teaching Twain. Open a Huck Finn discussion with Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in their Game" to reflect on Huck's father Pap and his infamously rabid racist tirade. It is one of the more disgusting soliloquies I've ever read. In it, Pap rails against a Black professor he'd encountered in the North whose personal elegance shined an "infernal" white light on Pap's own degenerate lifestyle. Using Dylan's song helps to expose racism as a mental illness that wastes the lives of its victims and its perpetrators. 

Morrison, Toni. (@ToniMorrison) "If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." October 30th, 2013, 8:26. Tweet. 

Having suggested all this, the best way to engage Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might be to excerpt it and couple it with a text that is in conversation with it. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, my new book Jim Huckleberry, was born for that purpose.

Jim Huckleberry
is a new anti-racist retelling of Twain's story from the perspective of Jim as a self-liberated, formerly enslaved Black man. Jim Huckleberry directly confronts the racism in Twain's most famous work, while excavating and building upon the anti-racism imbedded in that conflicted novel.

In Jim Huckleberry, Jim longs for his wife, pines for his children, considers violence as a means to freedom, investigates religion and the nature of existence with the depth of a philosopher. Jim is centered as a full human through an inner-voice full of rhyming, rhythmic lyricism that directly challenges the nearly unintelligible faux "negro dialect" that stains Twain's work. Jim Huckleberry was inspired by a great teaching challenge - teaching Huck Finn in 2016 Baltimore during a racial charged school year at a now integrated independent school with a racist history.

Jim Huckleberry gets Twain's assertion that racism is White people's problem to fix, and centers Blackness to give teachers an anti-racist text to help with that difficult work. The anti-racist power of this book and its origin story in the challenge of teaching Twain will inspire your administrators, teachers, and students to want to be anti-racist. Let me prove it to you by offering Jim Huckleberry as a summer read. You can get it on amazon here. If you need proof of quality, listen to a reading of the opening page on soundcloud here.

If a class set is purchased, I will offer access to 20-30 minute virtual lessons that engage excerpts of both Huck Finn and Jim Huckleberry for comparison and contrast. These could be helpful as soon as Fall of the '20-21 school year as we make our way through future rounds of distance learning. Consider engaging this work of an anti-racist teacher and writer. Find out more at

Teaching Twain critically, alongside the full human story of Jim, is an opportunity to finally reckon with a brutal part of our nation's history. By doing this difficult work with open hearts and minds, we learn skills that will help us to confront some of our nation's other deeply entrenched challenges including class and gender. I believe committing to the tough work of anti-racism can make us better at what most of us got into teaching for, to seed in our students the power to make a better world.