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.