The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contains over two hundred instances of the n-word, which has caused many readers to question whether the book is appropriate for high school reading lists. Many readers find the ubiquitous presence of the word needlessly offensive to African Americans. As Langston Hughes wrote, the word “sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.” Throughout the 1990s, parents and concerned readers frequently attempted to ban the book from public libraries and school curricula, and its presence on reading lists continues to be challenged on a regular basis today. In 2011, a publisher released a version of Huck Finn with the n-word replace by the term “slave,” but the book remains problematic. Defenders of the novel maintain that Twain had artistic intentions for using the word so often. Literary scholar David Sloane argues that the frequency of the n-word throughout the novel reveals Twain’s desire “to show racism as so integral and pervasive as to be inescapable,” and thus to shame his readers into repulsion. Despite arguments emphasizing the literary effects of Twain’s use of the n-word, there remains a lack of consensus in the United States regarding how—and indeed whether—to teach Huckleberry Finn.
The n-word first appeared in English in the seventeenth century, when it functioned as a neutral descriptor whose meaning derived from the Latin word for “black”: niger. Even then, the n-word was only relatively neutral, since it appeared in the context of slavery and the slave trade, which involved race-based political imbalances. By the early nineteenth century, the word had become synonymous with slavery in the United States, and was often used to distinguish a black slave from a white person with the same first name. In Huck Finn, the black slave character is called “Nigger Jim,” which would have differentiated him from white men named Jim. This close association with slavery, coupled with racial bias among whites, endowed the term with derogatory power. By the mid-nineteenth century, the n-word was recognized as an epithet against black people. In 1837 the minister and abolitionist Hosea Easton wrote that the word “is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.” Far from merely describing skin color, the n-word served to dehumanize black people and therefore to justify and extend the institution of slavery in the United States.
When Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in the late nineteenth century, he knew full well the power of the word. So why did he use it repeatedly – some would argue excessively – in the novel? By comparison, his previous novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, contains nine instances of the word. One way to answer that question is to ask who is using the word: is it Twain himself, or his character, Huck? Twain himself uses the word “negro” in the Explanatory to describe a type of dialect. But the rest of the book is told through the voice of Huck – a voice, Twain writes, he “painstakingly” ensured was socially, historically, and regionally accurate. Other terms for a black person existed when Twain wrote the book – “African” and “slave” in addition to negro – but Huck is raised by a deeply racist father and equally racist caretaker, both of whom use the n-word exclusively. Considering Huck’s social milieu and lack of education, it is unlikely he would have been familiar with the writing of abolitionists like Easton, or even known the n-word was pejorative.
Twain wrote that his goal for Huck Finn, in part, was to show “that strange thing, the conscience—the unerring monitor—can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early and stick to it.” By showing that Huck grew up surrounded by the n-word, and uses it himself unthinkingly, Twain conveys how natural, and even morally correct, racism would have seemed to characters like Huck. Twain knew the pervasiveness of racism firsthand, as he grew up in a slave-owning family, and held racist beliefs as a young man. His views slowly changed over the years, thanks in part to his wife, whose family were abolitionists. By the end of the nineteenth century, Twain was writing essays about the corrosive, dehumanizing effect of slavery on slaves and slave-owners alike. To many critics, Huck Finn is an equally impassioned indictment of the institution of slavery. To other readers, the novel’s repetition of the n-word make it a flawed, alienating artifact of a different time. However, rather than dropping the book from their curricula, many teachers use the book to explore the history and use of the n-word, suggesting the book has a continued place of importance in American education.