Our son, now aged nine, still enjoys a bedtime story, and I enjoy reading them. He’s perfectly literate but his reading-for-pleasure repertoire is along the lines of Harry Potter, Asterix, and Garfield. So I aim higher: Tolkien, Homer, Le Guin. Recently we started on Huckleberry Finn.

Before we dove in, I spent a few minutes on a capsule history of the slave trade, the Civil War, the Jim Crow years, the civil rights movement, and so on. He seemed to get it; as evidence, he picked right up on it when I pointed out that some of these storylines extend forward to right now, as in the Obama/McCain that’s on every TV these days.

I also explained that “nigger”, which appears in every other sentence of Huck Finn, is super-ultra-rude and just isn’t used any more. I haven’t tried yet for the narrative that explains why Dr. Dre and Derek Walcott can use it all they want, just like I can say gweilo when being ironic about certain aspects of trans-Pacific culture.

I gotta say, it feels distinctly weird to be saying it out loud all the time; on casting back my mind I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard it in a live conversation in the old-school racist sense. Yep, I’ve been around plenty of bigotry: Americans against Lebanese (“Lebs” they said), Hindus against Muslims, Orangemen against Catholics. Just not that particular white/black flavor.

Anyhow, Huck Finn is just a great read and I suspect it’s expanding the boy’s mind. Plus, I’m having fun doing all the voices; fortunately there are no actual American Southerners in the room to moan at my lame Pacific-Northwest-flavored mimicry. Nor any African-Canadians who might think I’m sharing Twain’s characters’ attitudes along with their language.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Etienne Posthumus (Nov 03 2008, at 01:15)

And here I thought you were referring to that _other_ word.

Wondering if the blog post would be an update to your saga on http://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/200x/2006/10/22/Goodness-Gracious and further developments.

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From: Tom Saywer (Nov 03 2008, at 03:28)

Huckleberry Finn IMHO showed that classics could be written in the New World.

That new world has now become rather too

Politically Correct.

The life on the river of the two fugitive companions is so rich that your son might be disappointed (as I was when a kid) later on - when when the comic element enters.

In 2002 the BBC made a really atmospheric radio dramatization in three hourly episodes - which caught the spirit for me.

Good choice Tim.

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From: len (Nov 03 2008, at 06:33)

The N word will become popular again because its rudeness will become a fashionable political jab in the coming years among the young. The pop culture of Dre and others make that possible.

When we were younger, many profanities and vulgarities were not allowed in mass media or polite culture that now don't raise an eyebrow. It only took one generation of kids pushing back against what they considered unnecessary constraints to achieve that: ours.

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From: Justin Rudd (Nov 03 2008, at 09:33)

heh...we Southerners love to make fun of Northerners that try to emulate our accents :)

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are two books that I read every year. They never get old.

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From: John Cowan (Nov 03 2008, at 16:01)

Don't you believe it, Len. Neither you nor I nor Tim are going to be able to use that word in public or private for a long, long, long time, probably longer than our expected lifetimes.

I know you grew up with close black friends, and maybe you can use it with them, but even I, complete with new black grandson, can't shouldn't mustn't.

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From: John Turnbull (Nov 03 2008, at 19:53)

It was read to me by a nervous Dad in the late 50s and I read it with reservations similar to yours in the late 80s. Some reassurance: kids understand fiction and character better than parents imagine.

Huck Finn is as liberating from racial assumptions now as it was when it was written. What matters more is who shares your dinner table.

And ain't it a great book?! I'm looking forward to the grand-children.

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From: len (Nov 04 2008, at 11:03)

Heavens no, John. I don't use that with any of my friends. There is no call for it.

But a generation hence, the "take the opposite side" will happen as it always does. Kids look for anything they can find that offends our parental sensibilities and since that has become the number one offender, they'll grab it.

And you know why that will be a good thing? Because to be afraid of a word, any word, is voodoo. It gives someone a means to wrap a head around a knife blade and shake it back and forth. It creates fear. It creates anger. It makes resentments.

Words should not be given more power than people. It isn't when we don't see differences that we lose our differences. It's when we like them.

BTW: Voting day is turning into a big party down here courtesy of Starbucks, Chik-Fil-A, Krispy Kreme and Ben and Jerry's. We're having a great time in these huge turn out lines. Ah, this is what makes this country a fabulous place to live. Long live the Republic!

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From: Simon Brocklehurst (Nov 04 2008, at 14:37)

Tim,

I wonder if you've read the Harry Potter books yourself? All seven on them.

J K Rowling's work usually appears on the same list of books banned by schools, as Mark Twain's, John Steinbeck's, and J. D. Salinger's. Authors that have books banned, tend to be worth reading, IMHO...

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From: Tony Fisk (Nov 04 2008, at 22:32)

There was a 'moment' many years ago, when local comedian Bert Newton cheerfully and quite innocently greeted Muhammed Ali on stage by quipping 'I like the boy!'

...

The world heavyweight boxing champion got out of his seat, leaned over Newton... and planted a *big* kiss on his cheek.

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