'Huckleberry Finn' wins a first round in St. Louis Park

  • Article by: DAN WASCOE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2007 - 11:10 PM

Parents' request to have it removed from high school's required reading list was rebuffed, but they plan an appeal.

Ken Gilbert read the story of Huckleberry Finn in the late 1960s in a segregated black North Carolina school, but he doesn't remember much about Huck's adventures and the book's status as an American classic.

What he does remember is class discussions of the n-word. Mark Twain used it over and over.

"Why were there so many usages of the same word?" he said. "We never got to the story line. It was the racial issue."

When daughter Nia was assigned to read it in her 10th-grade honors class, his memories of a racially volatile childhood came surging back. Now Gilbert and his wife, Sylvia, are reviving a century-old debate by asking St. Louis Park High School to remove the novel from the required-reading list.

So far their request has been declined, but an appeal is planned.

While controversy over the book dates back to the 1880s, debate over use of the n-word by schools, theaters and even black entertainers continues to make news.

For Gilbert, a 52-year-old small-business owner, there's not much question: While no word should be banned entirely, he said, he believes it should not be tolerated in informal conversation or popular entertainment. For blacks, he said, "There's no word that brings you to a lower level. ... It makes children feel less than equal in the classroom."

He does not seek to ban the book from the school. "I don't care if all of America reads the book," he said, but he doesn't want it to be required classroom reading.

A 12-member committee of teachers, parents, a community member and a school administrator reviewed the Gilberts' request. According to a letter to parents from Principal Robert Laney, the group decided that although some of the novel's language is offensive, "the literary value of the book outweighed the negative aspect of the language employed."

The Gilberts will appeal to Superintendent Debra Bowers.

As word of the challenge to the book spread at school, some students created posters saying, "Save Huck Finn" and began a website objecting to the Gilberts' request.

Patrick Zahner, a junior, read the book last year after having read Twain's "Tom Sawyer." He described the request to remove "Huckleberry Finn" as "misguided" because Twain uses racist characters "to parody racism." Similar arguments could be used "to take many other books out of the curriculum," he said.

Rosalyn Korst, head of the high school's language arts department, said that in her 34 years at St. Louis Park she could not recall a previous effort to remove a title from the curriculum, although some parents have asked that their children be allowed to read alternative books.

Korst said the Twain book's value in the curriculum rests partly on "learning to fight racism in a safe environment. ... It's a good learning experience."

She said Twain's uses of dialects, satire and irony are important teaching tools and illustrate why he is considered "the authentic voice of the American people."

Laney said students may request an alternative assignment. Nia Gilbert and another student read "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd as an alternative to "Huckleberry Finn."

But Gilbert said such a request can make a student feel ostracized from the rest of the class. He said his daughter has taken heat at school because of the controversy. Nia Gilbert declined to be interviewed.

Ken Gilbert said he is a former member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in North Carolina. The party, founded in 1966 in Oakland, Calif., had a reputation for championing black power --sometimes militantly -- and its leaders espoused socialistic solutions to problems of poverty.

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