Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume have done a great job rescuing the NAACP. It's solvent after almost crumbling under a $3.2 million debt. Membership is up. And, maybe most importantly, it has let young blacks know that, as Mfume says, "this is not your mother's NAACP."
But the chairman and the president of the NAACP have made one major misstep: they've backed demands from the group's Pennsylvania state conference that schools in that state remove Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from students' mandatory reading lists. "Tax dollars," the state conference explains, "should not be used to perpetuate a stereotype that has psychologically damaging effects on the self-esteem of African American children."
Unlike the NAACP's high-profile call for an economic boycott of South Carolina until the Confederate flag stops flying over its state house, and unlike the hearings that Mfume held last November in Los Angeles about the lack of racial diversity in the TV industry, the anti-"Huck" crusade couldn't be more misguided. Huck Finn is about is as racist as the spider in "Charlotte's Web" is psychotic.
Sure, the book is full of the word "nigger." But Twain's contempt for the racism that gives rise to the word is apparent in the friendship that he portrays between Huck and Jim--a friendship in which Jim's color is irrelevant and his soul is ever shining, in which he and Huck feel their humanity with a new, lively keenness. Their journey on the Mississippi is a voyage beyond the forces that restrain them, whether these are the staid, bourgeois constraints that always threaten to smooth down Huck's rough edges or the iron shackles that went around Jim's ankles a few times too often.
Reading "Huck" as literature should be required, not forbidden. As history, it should be understood, not denigrated. As a tool to understand what was going on in the 19th century and what it took for a decent person--especially a decent boy--not to participate in the national urge to shove an entire people into a subordinate category of rejects and devils, "Huck" ranks with the best of classroom lessons It teaches that we're all responsible for orienting our own destinies, and that while we continually mold and shape our fates to the moment, it's only the people with good and full hearts who have a chance of getting to heaven--a place that Twain, a professional agnostic, wiped off his personal eschatological map.
On their raft, Huck and Jim were equals; it was the currents of the Mississippi that upset whatever equilibrium they'd established on their journey along this mysterious and ripe river. The Mississippi wasn't the great divide between East and West or a great split in our national psyches between good and bad and free and slave. It was the great stream down which flowed all humanity: its blessed and its wretched, its saved and its damned, its saints and its demons, and all the rest of us who are far more ordinary and banal and who, maybe miraculously, manage to make it through the day.
Huck and Jim's travels took them through the darkness and through the light. And both of these, in almost equal measure, buffeted their excursion. Words like "nigger" arose from the shore or from passing boats (and sometimes from Huck and even from Jim) because that was the vernacular of the day, one not reserved strictly for racists, slave owners, slave traders, or the many millions of people who tolerated the peculiar institution because. well, just because this was how America was, and why tamper with tradition and the way things were done--and always had been done?
But words are fixed to times, and the power of certain words changes as times change. As corrosive and scarifying as the "n"-word was--and still is--it's still illuminating for high school students to hear it and to read it: it's a touchstone to our past, to an ugly past. Hearing Huck and Jim and all the others in Twain's cavalcade of 19th-century America speak it, we touch the flesh of another time, we travel down a river with a white boy and a black man, we know Jim's fright that Huck--his pal!--won't be able to protect him. Huck might be white, but after all he's just a boy. And we know that by now we have, thank God, traveled far from that river: blacks are fugitives no more, and they don't have to sit at the back of the bus, and laws say that they can vote and work and live just like every other American citizen.
Huck and Jim would be proud of the distance we've traveled--a distance they could never have imagined as they set out on their trip downstream. A distance they would envy. A distance they would gladly have set their oars in that mighty river to help us reach.
The NAACP should not deprive us of that journey. The scenery is much too lush, too telling, too panoramic to deny.