Below you will find my response to Kay’s post on prejudice:  Mark Twain’s “N-Word”.  You might what to visit Kay’s blog to read the post and comments so you will have context for my “speech”.

~*~

I have taught with the original text (Tom Sawyer) in my 5th grade classroom — ten year olds — in a racially diverse community. I told them BEFORE we opened the book and started reading that it had language that would be very hard for us to understand.

I explained that some of the words just weren’t used any more, but there were a few words in the book that would shock them and make them angry.  We needed to talk about how we are going to handle that before we started reading.

The book was not used in conjunction with the reading program, it was used in our equal rights and equalities studies.  We talked about how people get smarter and grow and evolve.  I asked the kids to describe things they were afraid of as babies that they are no longer afraid of now.

As we read the book we discussed it, scene by scene.  We discussed our emotions in reaction to what we read, but we also discussed the character’s emotions in reaction to what they heard.

We talked about the fact that Jim and Tom were friends and Jim wasn’t offended by the use of the N word and in fact used it to describe himself.  Then we talked about naming in general.  Such as: Why is it okay for one person to call you “honey” but not another? Why can you say, “I am an idiot” but get ticked off when someone else says it?  Even 10 year olds were bright enough to figure out the difference in intent — why the word was used.

My personal opinion is that if one wants kids to learn one should teach them; not hide everything disreputable from them until they are 18 years old and then hope that — without instruction or guidance — they make optimal choices.

And while I would never introduce sexually explicit material into the classroom, I wouldn’t fail to address it if a child brought it into the classroom (and believe me, in the upper grades they do). In fact every school I worked in had a specific policy of gathering and talking to  — educating — everyone involved in the incident, including the parents of the children.

Ignoring hatred, prejudice and exploitation will not eradicate them.  Exposing them for the shameful, petty, and degrading things they are have reduced prejudice and its resulting violence, and I have seen the changes in school campuses that prove this.


Quilly is the pseudonym of Charlene L. Amsden, who lives in the Pacific Northwest. When she is not doing book reviews or creating curriculum literature units, she is working on writing the next great American novel. You may visit her writing blog at http://charlene-amsden.com. Quilly is the pseudonym of Charlene L. Amsden, who lives in the Pacific Northwest. When she is not doing book reviews or creating curriculum literature units, she is working on writing the next great American novel. You may visit her writing blog at http://charlene-amsden.com.


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About the author

Quilly is the pseudonym of Charlene L. Amsden, who lives in the Pacific Northwest. When she is not doing book reviews or creating curriculum literature units, she is working on writing the next great American novel. You may visit her writing blog at http://charlene-amsden.com.

32 Comments

  • nessaNo Gravatar says:

    This was my comment:

    Children are not stupid. Taking words out of books won’t keep it from them.

    Silence is worse than dealing with a topic openly. Re-writing history will not make the future a better place. learning from history will.

    I have trouble equating Tom Sawyer with pornography. I think a better comparison would be naked statues – do we cover them with fig leaves?

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Nessa — I totally agree on all counts. I am not the one who originally linked pornography with Tom Sawyer. I was just responding to the comments on Kay’s post, which prompted mine.

      • nessaNo Gravatar says:

        I forgot that some of my comment wouldn’t track. i knew you weren’t doing the porn = archaic word usage.

        That’s why I don’t usually get involved in debates and discussions. People have a hard time staying on topic.

        • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

          Actually, Nessa, I assumed you knew, but used your comment to educate readers who may not have understood why I had that reference in my post since it so obviously didn’t track.

  • AmoebaNo Gravatar says:

    From your blog to the school board’s agenda, Q.

    hide everything disreputable from them until they are 18 years old and then hope that — without instruction or guidance — they make optimal choices.

    Oh, they’ll get “instruction and guidance”, all right. It’ll just come from classmates, demagogues, and profiteers – what, back when elephants had fur and I was ten years old, used to be called “the gutter” – instead of from parents and teachers. As I pointed out on Kay’s post, first impressions matter. Whom do you wish to be in charge of those first impressions?

  • Stacy LynnNo Gravatar says:

    I am with you on this one, Quilly. I was really ticked to hear of the sanitized version being published. Mark Twain was reflecting what American life was like at the time. I believe I’ve even heard that he was against racism and used the “N” word so many times to call attention to it and make a point. What? Should we rid ourselves of everything that reflects a shameful part of our history? I don’t think so. We need to measure ourselves against it and see how far we’ve come….and how far we still have to go.

    (climbing down off the soapbox)

  • gigi-hawaiiNo Gravatar says:

    I am glad you would never introduce sexually explicit material to students…

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Gigi — I find it highly ironic that you, who as a writer staunchly refuse to allow censorship of your work, so boldly proclaim at Kay’s that censoring Twain, one of America’s greatest writers, is perfectly acceptable. I am surprised you don’t realize you can’t have it both ways.

  • kcinnovaNo Gravatar says:

    I would happily have my children in your classroom while you were reading that book.

    I watched “Roots” with my then-4th grader as part of our delving into the Civil War. I had watched it with my family when it was a TV mini-series, but I had forgotten some of the very disturbing words. I think it made for some very educational moments as we discussed the meaning of the words and the reasoning behind them (e.g., equating slave women with dogs) and how hurtful and dehumanizing it was.

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Karen — thank you. All of the parents of my children felt the same. I did have to schedule a meeting and invite them in to chat if they had concerns, however I received overwhelming support rather than opposition.

  • DougNo Gravatar says:

    Yep, I agree with you and Amoeba. More than that, though, I think a book is made up of the words the author chooses. The book has the N-word in it, for better or worse, and it is a classic of American fiction.

  • Barbara H.No Gravatar says:

    I agree with you, Quilly. Better to learn from history than to try to erase it.

    • Barbara H.No Gravatar says:

      BTW, I think you handled it in your class excellently.

      • Barbara H.No Gravatar says:

        I should think this all through before I comment. 🙂 I’m not saying I think “anything goes” in the classroom as long as we discuss it, but on the other hand, pretending something is not a part of history does not help anyone. Teaching Tom Sawyer as is can be a valuable learning experience.

        • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

          Barbara — I would be the first one to agree that not every teacher should undertake the study of Tom Sawyer in his/her classroom. And that doesn’t mean I think I am a better teacher. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses and my talent seems to be in understanding human emotion.

          And your opinions are always welcome here, even if it takes you three posts to articulate them. (It happens to the best of us.)

  • musingsNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you very much for your excellent, eloquent, right-on comments on my post, Quilly and Amoeba. I really appreciate it. You both clarified the situation far better than the newspaper article did. I just hope EVERY teacher in every part of this country will teach the book as sensitively and perfectly as you did. If so, I can imagine how much better off our future generation and world would be.

  • JimNo Gravatar says:

    .
    Good post, Quilly. I never have read Tom Sawyer. Huck Finn I did but didn’t remember that ‘N’ word there.
    In the fifth grade I had no predjuces and didn’t know that word. I did read Little Black Sambo quite a bit so knew of Black kids although I had never seen a Black. I still have my old raggedy book.
    I knew of Kay’s post but haven’t gone over to read it.
    ..
    Thank you for your prayers. 🙂 The office called at 7:00 this morning and said the doctor was going to be out. I asked if I could come take my tests anyway and got a “Yes” answer. I will live but am a little anxious to hear what the doc has to say next Monday.
    My cardiovascular system has been messed up royally since 2001 and of course it gradually got that way. My mom died of congestive heart failure at age 88 back in 1999.
    ..

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Jim — you likely don’t remember the word because you read it in context. During the time period in which Tom Sawyer is set, nigger wasn’t a controversial word. (Which does not mean it wasn’t a racist term, it only means that society didn’t recognize their own racist tendencies.)

      • JimNo Gravatar says:

        .
        But I didn’t read Tom Sawyer, ever. 🙂 Not only did I not read the word in question but I didn’t hear it either.
        Yes, I understood that it wasn’t a racist term back then; if I believe that. I do know that in the 1900’s it was only a descriptive term as my MIL knew it. They were all neighbors in Louisiana. Just like the Hispanics and us were all neighbors in El Paso. Mrs. Jim and I don’t use the term but Mema did until the day she died. She also used “colored people.” Our daughter when she was young asked, “Mema, what color are they?”
        My family is multi-ethnic and it doesn’t bother me in th slightest. I love them all! Does that bear any relationship to the conversation here?
        ..

  • Mama ZenNo Gravatar says:

    I was absolutely outraged when I read about the censored version of Mark Twain.

  • RavenNo Gravatar says:

    Well said. When you deal with these words your way, you teach children to discern intent and the complexity of human words versus human intentions, the complexity of bigotry and racism. I hate to say mean things, but our society seems to be getting dumber and dumber. We try to pretend things away rather than working through them…. which actually allows them to get worse.

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Raven — my point in a nutshell — rather than diffusing an issue, ignoring it actually allows it to flourish. The Bible tells us that that which is evil cannot stand the light, so why don’t we pull prejudice out into the sun and expose it for what it is?

  • DMNo Gravatar says:

    So, we will sanitize Mark Twain and the use of the word “nigger” but it is perfectly acceptable for rap artists, athletes, and other African-Americans to use that word. This is hypocrisy at its best. Quilly, I am sure you took great pains to protect the children in your classroom. (Were you protecting them, or were you protecting yourself from that one self-righteous parent who saw an opportunity to have a vendetta against the school district and take it out on you as a teacher?) However, how many of those same children heard Tupak, Run DMC, Eminem or those other vile musicians masquerading as artists under the First Amendment by using the same words or worse? We as a society have a double standard on nearly everything including speech. Quilly, kudos for your efforts in the classroom and a boot to the tailpipe of the American collective conscious for sanitizing Mark Twain’s language.

    • QuillyNo Gravatar says:

      Gary — that is pretty much the comment Amoeba left on Kay’s website. And I never had a parent come after me. The one and only parent that ever threatened to “turn me in” backed off when I picked up the phone and dialed the school district for her.

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