By DAVID LEIBOWITZ:
Copyright © 1996 Cox News Service
PHOENIX (May 7, 1996 2:35 p.m. EDT) -- I can still conjure up that afternoon without much effort. The fourth grade, Public School 209 in New York City. The first time someone ever called me that word.
I knew what it meant, had heard that anti-Semitic slur before, but never aimed at me. It scalded, shamed. I mumbled a defense: I wasn't one, my mother was Catholic, an Italian. Only my father was Jewish.
The speaker, a kid I once thought a friend, laughed at me.
I made sure not to cry until I'd gotten two blocks away.
The word surfaced again over the years. Each time, it gouged a hunk out of my self-respect, left me feeling apart, "other." It brought me to tears, to fury, and, once, to blows.
Then came the books.
Authors like Elie Wiesel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. They taught me about pride and dignity, and, more importantly, about the small-mindedness behind racism and the hurling of slurs.
In the end, their words freed me from the power of that word.
Therein lies the sadness of the controversy that continues to follow Mark Twain and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
You felt it acutely on the sidewalk outside McClintock High School in Tempe a few mornings back, watching a thin huddle of protesters wave their signs.
"What Can You Teach About Nigger?" read the saddest placard of all.
They, the Twain haters, would like you to brand the author a racist for his use of that loaded word, at least 200 times in Huck Finn by most counts. And, for that, they would like you to condemn one of American literature's crown jewels to the rear of the pantheon.
"When you read the story, to me it's like, what is the purpose?" asks Charlie Minniefield, one of the protesters. "What is the purpose of the story?”
It's a question easily answered, and one that shows why slurring Mark Twain demands a defense.
The purpose of Huck Finn is to preach against the confines of society and the closing of the mind "sivilization" breeds, and -- front and center -- to rant against racism.
That's what Twain was doing, you see, way back in the mid 1880s, back when the slaves had been freed in the lawbooks, but not in people's hearts. Understand that we are talking about a man who paid the way of a black student through Yale, because he thought the white race owed some huge debts, who gave readings at black churches. Understand, too, the foremost tool of an author.
I will not bore you the way my grad-school American lit profs bored me, but I assure you it is possible to say one thing and mean another, or to use a word only to show your distaste for it. Pick up Huck and turn to Chapter Six, to Pap Finn's foul-mouthed speech on "govment" and a "mulatter." It stands as the novel's most obvious example, because nowhere else does Twain's disgust for Huck's racist father edge closer to the surface: In mid-rant, Pap trips over a tub of salt pork, then stubs his toe. He ends the scene by getting "blind drunk.”
Racism equals foolishness, no?
Then, too, irony aside, we have the chapters spent on the raft, Huck and Jim, Miss Watson's slave, adrift on the Mississippi. These two stand apart from society now, and without that bondage they form a better kind of friendship, based on respect and intimacy. Simply put, they escape the handcuffs of race. Ultimately, it's Jim who spells out friendship in Chapter 15, after Huck plays a practical joke on him.
"Dat truck dah is trash," he says, "en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em ashamed.”
Explains Huck: "Then he got up slow and walked to the wigwam, and went in there without saying anything but that. But that was enough. It made me feel so mean I could almost kissed his foot to get him to take it back.”
That's the debt we all owe to Twain, I would argue -- a kiss. For his courage to use an ugly word to free us from its ugliness, and his vision at a time when it was in short supply. Those people bearing signs may want Huck Finn out of the classroom, and off the required reading list for honors English, for the sensitivities that slur pricks, but they should sit down and read that book one more time.
We all should. Read every word. Not just one.