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Dan Portillo: ‘Finn’ prepares students for real life

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Posted: January 22, 2011 9:29 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:30 a.m.

The debate rages on over whether high schools across the United States should clean up the N-word from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or ban the book altogether from the literary canon.

While the factors of this issue involve complex emotions and deep-seated concerns, especially considering the esteem issues faced by high school students, the argument ultimately breaks down to one question: Should material be banned simply because it is “offensive”?

I answer this with a resounding “no” — especially in the case of “Huckleberry Finn” — for two reasons.

 Those very students the school is trying to protect will have to deal with offensive situations later on; furthermore, tackling this subject at this stage gives students the ability to deal with it in academic and nonacademic environments down the road.

To shield these students now would be to ill-prepare them for the inevitable moment when they will have to face this kind of adversity. 

A simple fact of life is that we must all face offensive situations that we are better off being equipped to handle with a sound mind.

Having spent more than three years teaching in a low-income school district where racial/ethnic minorities were the majority, it became commonplace for me to hear, “You white (this)” or “You white (that)” when a student I had to discipline wanted to make the matter personal. It was not part of the job description when I signed on, but I had to deal with it — and responsibly — nonetheless. Running away or reacting in a way that would have cost me my job was no option.

While my particular situation may have been unique, I dare say that “Huckleberry Finn” is not the only time blacks will be exposed to the N-word or to racially charged moments.

Not only is the N-word routinely used in black communities and among groups of black youths, it shows up frequently in music that targets them, and it was spouted regularly in the schools where I taught, even by non-black students in heated racial incidents that I had to handle. 

A bigger problem than having to deal with racially charged situations is that far too often, they are dealt with poorly or without the consideration they deserve.

Think of the overreaction to David Howard’s use of the word “niggardly” — which bears no etymological relationship to the N-word — that forced him to leave his post as aide to Washington’s former Mayor Anthony Williams until the meaning of the word was realized and Howard was asked to come back.

Embarrassing and overdramatic responses like this could be avoided if people learned to handle the issues and elements involving them earlier on.

In addition, it is not just in the “real world” that racially problematic incidents occur.

If students do not learn to handle offensive language in books at the high school level, college will force them to take a crash course in it.

In the multicultural literature course I took as a student, I did not enjoy reading about Bell Hooks “sitting beside an anonymous white male that [she] long[ed] to murder” nor her rants about how misshapen and odorous she found white women to be.

 Nor was I happy to see the N-word appear hundreds of times in Richard Wright’s novel “Native Son” in another course I took.

If we hope for students, especially black ones, to go on to college, blocking them from “Huckleberry Finn” is only putting off an academic inevitable for another year or so.

Also, let’s consider what kind of service we are providing students by protecting them from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Does anyone in academia believe we can shield offended students for life? What is the ultimate goal we would hope to achieve by “protecting” students now?  I see little to gain from this and much more to gain from allowing youths to face this topic and garner an intelligent way to respond to it in high school before they must face it the real world or in higher learning.  

Last, banning “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would not only deprive students of an enlightening story in which racism is condemned; it would go against the central theme of the story, where, as Mark Twain himself described it, a “sound heart” defeats the “deformed conscience.”

In this case, the soundness of tackling racism with wisdom must overpower our fear that today’s youths cannot handle the challenge. Given a choice between instilling students today with wisdom or with fear, I choose to make our students wise.

Dan Portillo is an associate adjunct English instructor at College of the Canyons and a former substitute teacher for the Palmdale School District. E-mail him at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. 


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