Archive for October, 2014

Freedom of Speech Returns to Kansas Universities?

Good news for employees of Kansas universities. Freedom of speech appears to have been restored!

Kansas Board of RegentsYou see, the Kansas Board of Regents’ recently passed social media policy says employees of Regents-governed Kansas universities do not have the right to freedom of speech. To be specific, employees can be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” “has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty” is necessary, or is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.” According to a separate policy on political activity, “personnel are free to express opinions speaking or writing as an individual in their personal capacity and not as a representative of the institution in signed advertisements, pamphlets and related material in support of or opposition to parties and causes.”

So, then, what of Coach Bill Snyder’s public endorsement of Senator Pat Roberts?  Does it violate either policy?  If not, then what precedent does it set?  Given the lack of public criticism from either the Regents or Kansas State University, it seems to suggest that outspokenness is welcome.

Snyder endorses Roberts (Facebook ad)

Note that, in the ad above (from the Pat Roberts for Senate 2014 Facebook page), it’s Coach Bill Snyder. The Roberts campaign has carefully Photoshopped the K-State logo from Snyder’s jacket and cap. But the title “Coach” only has meaning in the context of “Kansas State University.”

1. Political Activity.

But does this violate the “political activity” policy? I asked the Kansas Board of Regents yesterday.

Here’s the Regents’ response.

To clarify, I followed up with this question.

The Regents did not answer that one.

This morning, however, President Kirk Schulz issued a “reminder about university policy,” which does offer an answer: “Kansas State University does not endorse political candidates, and employees do not speak for the university when they endorse candidates. Employees should also avoid using their university-affiliation in any endorsements or statements.” On the one hand, since Snyder’s university affiliation is not specifically named in the advertisements, his endorsement is within the letter of the law. On the other hand, this statement distances the university from Snyder’s endorsement and reminds university employees that they should “avoid using their affiliation” in public statements on political candidates. In the video below, some of the photos indicate that Snyder and Roberts were taken at K-State. And, of course, that word Coach can only be meaningful in the context of “Kansas State University” — even if you omit those three words, they’re there by implication.       

Facebook: Coach Snyder & Pat Roberts (1)What I take away from this is that, though President Schulz isn’t crazy about the idea, faculty can endorse any political candidate they like and can use their title in doing so.  So, for instance, a sentence like “University Distinguished Professor Philip Nel endorses Paul Davis for Governor of Kansas” is acceptable speech — even if President Schulz would prefer that such statements were not made. As evidence, I would point to the Coach-Snyder-for-Pat-Roberts advertisements appearing on Facebook today.

2. Social Media Policy.

Facebook: Coach Snyder & Pat Roberts (2)That this passes muster with the architects of the social media policy is also welcome news. For example, in the ad, Coach Snyder says that Senator Roberts is “as good as it gets for the state of Kansas,” is “a great friend of the state of Kansas,” and “he genuinely cares about the people of the state of Kansas.”  As anyone who has followed the Senator’s career in government knows, he’s an advocate of torture, in favor of workplace discrimination, against student loan affordability, and believes that guns are more important than human lives (or, at least, that massacres like Sandy Hook are acceptable collateral damage).  Now, it strikes me as at least possible that some people might look at Roberts’ record and say that the university’s most famous employee’s endorsement of such record is “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  I mean, one presumes that Kansas State University might want to stand against workplace discrimination, for student loan affordability, and might even want to prevent a Virginia-Tech-style massacre on its campus. Evidently, though, Coach Snyder’s employer would prefer that he not make such statements, but is unwilling to take any public action against him.

The most intriguing line of Coach Snyder’s endorsement is his claim that Senator Roberts is “an honest individual.” His campaign advertisements against Greg Orman and statements in debates all provide ample evidence to the contrary. His ads allege that a vote for Orman would be a vote for President Obama, but in fact Orman (running as an independent) has said he will caucus with whichever party wins the Senate.  Roberts said he missed a Senate committee hearing on Sept. 16 about on threat of the Ebola outbreak because “The hearing was held out of session, during September.” However, as The Kansas City Star points out, “The Senate was in session that day.”  Roberts misses quite a few votes, actually — and most of those he attends are simply to vote “no” (on immigration reform, on Steven Burns as a new member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, etc.).

Yes, a cynic might argue that Coach Snyder’s speech is not facing censure from the Regents because their leaders also support Roberts, but — either way — this political advertisement sets a precedent. Employees can publicly say whatever they like, regardless of whether it’s true, false, or good for the university. While Coach Snyder’s standards for political office are remarkably low, I support his right to speak in favor of the candidate of his choice.  And I’m glad that, in doing so, he’s set a precedent for the rest of us to support the candidates we favor.  As Ms. Rosenberg (on Twitter) says,…

UPDATE, 31 Oct. 2014, 10:20 pm:

Comments (3)

Art for Art’s Sake; or, OK Go Videos Make Me Happy

OK GoOK Go videos: They’re surprising, clever, and eminently re-watchable. They also have an appealingly handmade feel to them, harkening back to a time when digitally manipulating images was too expensive for a music video. For the stop-motion classic “Sledgehammer” (1986), Peter Gabriel had to lie still for hours, beneath a plate of glass, while people from Aardman Animations manipulated fruit above him.  And they’re unapologetically Art with a capital “A.” Yes, OK Go hopes you’ll buy the band’s music, but the videos don’t feel like they’re trying to sell you anything beyond the sheer enjoyment of watching creative minds trying to create something beautiful. If this were the 1980s, I would be waiting by the TV, ready to hit “Record” on the VCR when the next OK Go video came on. Fortunately, today, I can simply collect eighteen of them right here, on this webpage.

I Won’t Let You Down (2014)

You see, there’s a new OK video out today: “I Won’t Let You Down,” directed by Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash, Jr., with choreography by Furitsukekagyou Airman, art direction by Jun Nishida, and creative direction by Morihiro Harano.  The whole thing is done in one take, shot with a drone (!) — one reason, I gather, that it had to be filmed in Japan. In Billboard article about the creation of the video, OK Go bassist Tim Norwind described the experience as “the best hour of my life.”


Unless I’ve miscounted (always a possibility), this is the eighteenth video from the band’s art-for-art’s-sake era, the latest in a nine-year period of video innovations that began with “A Million Ways.”

A Million Ways (2005)

The first OK Go video choreographed by Trish Sie (sister of lead singer Damien Kulash), “A Million Ways” is also OK Go’s first viral video.  Co-directed by Sie and OK Go, it establishes a key piece of the band’s video aesthetic: performed live, all in one take. It also introduces dance as a recurring motif.

It’s not that their pre-“Million Ways” videos are bad. “Get Over It” (2002), “Don’t Ask Me” (2003), “Don’t Ask Me (Dance Booth version)” (2003), and “You’re So Damn Hot” (2003) are all visually compelling, and some even buck convention — the ping-pong pause in the middle of “Get Over It,” for example. But “A Million Ways” starts their period of video innovation.

Here It Goes Again (2006)

Also choreographed by Trish Sie and co-directed by her and the band, “Here It Goes Again” is in many ways synonymous with the term “viral video.” If you’ve been on-line in the past eight years, you’ve almost certainly seen this one.

It ups the ante on “A Million Ways”: not only are they performing choreographed dance moves, but they’re doing it all on treadmills (all of which, incidentally, were set up in Sie’s basement).  It inspired many fan videos, a Simpsons tribute, and the band even performed the dance live (on treadmills!) at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Invincible (2006)

Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, “Invincible” is… well, actually, less of an eye-opener than the previous two. Using multiple takes, it juxtaposes shots of the band performing (on one side of the screen) with stuff getting blown up (on the other side of the screen). It harkens back to the pre-“A Million Ways” period. But you can’t expect genius every time. And, anyway, it still has sharp visuals, and is fun to watch.

Do What You Want (2007)

There’s actually an earlier video for this song, directed by Olivier Gondry, but I can’t find it on-line.  This video, directed by Damian Kulash, finds the group back in risk-taking mode. Wearing outfits that match the wallpaper behind them, the band and other performers rock out. But because the costumes prevent us from seeing their faces, even the rock stars become oddly anonymous, phantoms launched from the wallpaper.

I think also of the masked couple in Magritte’s The Lovers (1928) — intimacy obstructed by cloth. Here, we have improbably energetic performers, encased in wallpaper suits. But there’s still a tension between what you expect (stasis) and what you get (activity).

WTF? (2009)

With “WTF?”, the first video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, OK Go is fully back in innovation mode. Directed by Tim Nackashi and OK Go, the band creates another video which prompts you to wonder OK,… so, how did they do that?

Knowing that we’d wonder how they did it, the band also created what I think is their first making-of video, something that would become a regular feature.

This Too Shall Pass (Marching Band) (2010)

The first, and less famous, of the two “This Too Shall Pass” videos features the University of Notre Dame’s Band of the Fighting Irish and took 20 takes to get right. Brian K. Perkins and OK Go directed the piece, shot in a single take.

I love that they recorded a whole new arrangement of the song for the video, too.

This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Machine) (2010)

Directed by James Frost, OK Go and Syyn Labs, this is the better-known version of “This Too Shall Pass.” In some ways, it inaugurates an even more ambitious period of video-making for the band — and establishes the Rube Goldberg Machine as a key part of the OK Go aesthetic.

There’s a series of behind-the scenes videos, of course!

End Love (2010)

Filmed over the course of 18 hours (including a period when the band sleeps!), and then sped up (at different speeds), “End Love” also features… a goose! They shot the video in a park, and the goose, evidently, wanted to be a part of it. Hey, can you blame her?  Directed by OK Go, Eric Gunther, and Jeff Lieberman.

White Knuckles (2010)

Bringing back choreographer Trish Sie, “White Knuckles” shows the band mastering the art of… stacking!  Yes, stacking. And working with dogs. Again, shot in one take!

And, yes, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos for this one!

Last Leaf (2010)

A stop-motion video using over 2000 pieces of toast, each laser-cut with art by the band and Geoff Mcfetridge. The notion of telling a story via animation on toast compliments this quiet song’s themes of longing and impermanence. Sure, it’s an unusual way to express these ideas, but that sense of novelty is what makes it an OK Go video. 

Back from Kathmandu (2010)

In this video, OK Go takes its fans on a GPS-led parade through L.A. Their goal? To use a GPS app to spell out “OK Go.”  The New Orleans vibe of the parade has its pleasures, but the concept is more fun than actually watching the video documenting the concept. Still, though, I give them credit for trying something different.

All Is Not Lost (2011)

Fearturing the dance troupe Pilobolus, and directed by OK Go, Pilobolus, and Trish Sie, “All Is Not Lost” brings us back to the Wow! How did they do that? for which OK Go has rightly become famous.  There is also an interactive version of this one, which is well worth checking out.  Really.  It is “way cooler,” just as the video (below) tells you.

Also, for those who want to know how it was made, there’s a series of behind-the-scenes videos.

Needing/Getting (2011)

Directed by Brian L. Perkins and Damian Kulash, the band drives a Rube-Goldberg’d car through a Rube Goldberg’d landscape. Instead of making a Rube Goldberg machine that choreographs movement and image to the song (as in “This Too Shall Pass”), this machine actually performs the song it accompanies. According to the YouTube page, “The video took 4 months of preparation and 4 days of shooting and recording. There are no ringers or stand-ins; Damian took stunt driving lessons.”

And you bet there’s a behind-the-scenes video series for this one!

Skyscrapers (2011)

The final video from Of the Blue Colour of the Sky, “Skyscrapers” features choreographer Trish Sie dancing the tango with Moti Buchboot.  Sie also directed it.  Brightly colored, elegant, and absorbing, the video is a reminder of the band’s understanding that we (its audience) don’t require Rube Goldberg machines to hold our attention. It’s also nice to see Sie — who launched the band’s career as video auteurs — move to a starring role.

Muppet Show Theme Song (2011)

If you’ve watched the preceding videos, now… watch the meta-video!  OK Go and the Muppets pay homage to the OK Go oeuvre and, of course, to the Muppets!

Primary Colors (2012)

For Sesame Street, OK Go did a stop-motion video explaining the primary colors. Watching it again reminds me, too, that their post-“A Million Ways” videos all have an almost childlike playfulness to them.  There’s a sense of hey, what if we tried this?  The end result requires careful planning, of course. But the band and their collaborators seem animated by a spirit of adventure and experimentation.

The Writing’s on the Wall (2014)

And that brings us full circle, back to the first video from their latest record (Hungry Ghosts, which I strongly recommend).  It’s another single-shot video, but this time the emphasis is on optical illusions.  It reminds me a bit of the optical-illusion street art where, from the correct angle, the street has suddenly become (for example) a cliff. Directed by Aaron Duffy, Damian Kulash, Jr. and Bob Partington, “The Writing’s on the Wall” is great fun to watch. And that, friends, is the theme of the OK Go videos. They are fun. The band is making art because it is fun to make art.  They’re art for art’s sake in the very best sense of that term.

On this one, they’ve gone one better on their making-of videos, creating an interactive making-of video. It’s as fun as the video itself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of OK Go’s music-video oeuvre. I wonder what they are planning now…?

Comments (1)

Harold Around the World

Harold and the Purple Crayon in ten different languages

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverFor Crockett Johnson‘s 108th birthday, it’s… Harold around the world!  Whether you know him as Valtteri, Paultje, Pelle, Tullemand, Harold, or something else, you can read about his adventures in at least 14 languages. I have copies of Harold and the Purple Crayon in nine languages (Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and its original English) and have found some additional covers in other languages (German, Polish, Swedish) on-line.

So, grab your crayon, draw up a chair, and take a look at the many versions of Harold!


Chinese

The book is available in at least two versions in Chinese. Here’s the one published by Hsinex International Corporation in 1987. On the cover, Harold’s skin tone is a darker shade of tan than it is inside the book (where it is the same light tan color that it is in the English-language edition).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 1987)

And here’s the one published by Jieli Publishing House in 2004.  This publisher also translated the other six Harold books — including Harold’s ABC, which must be strange to read. The letters are in English, and the items they name are English words, but all the print narrative is in Chinese — followed by a parenthetical mention of the English word named by the letter.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 2004)


Danish

Tullemand!  Translated by Bibi & Thomas Winding.  Published by Gylendal.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Danish edition, 2000)

(For this copy, my thanks to Stewart Edelstein, Executor of Ruth Krauss’s Estate.)


Dutch

For the Dutch edition, one of the Netherlands’ greatest children’s writers did the translation: Annie M.G. Schmidt, author of Jip and Janneke, Tow-Truck Pluck, and many others (most of which have not been translated into English).  Published by Lemniscaat.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Dutch edition, 2011)


Finnish

Translated by Riitta Oittinen. Published by Pieni Karhu (Little Bear).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Finnish edition, 1999)

(Thanks to Leena Reiman, who sent me this copy back in 1999 — during the earliest days of my Crockett Johnson Homepage.)


French

In French, Harold’s crayon is pink.  Translated from the American by Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray. (Really — from the American, not from the English. “Traduit de l’américain par Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray.”)

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2001)

In the latest French edition (same translator), Harold’s crayon is now violet.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2013)


German

According to GoogleTranslate, this German title translates to “I’m making my own world.” I don’t have a copy of this, but if I remember correctly (I’ve seen a copy with those of Johnson’s papers housed with Ruth Krauss’s), the crayon is red in this edition.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (German edition)

There’s a new German edition, which (mostly) retains Johnson’s title: “Zauberkreide” is “magic chalk,” which makes this much closer to Harold and the Purple Crayon than the above version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (current German edition)


Hebrew

Note that the binding is on the right side here. The pages are all mirror images of the English-language version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Hebrew edition)


Italian

Translated by Giulio Lughi. Published by Einaudi Ragazzi.  Contains both Harold and the Purple Crayon and Harold’s Trip to the Sky.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Italian edition, 2000)


Polish

Translated by Tomasz Zając. Published by Media Rodzina.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Polish edition)


Spanish

Translated by Teresa Mlawer. Published by HarperCollins.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Spanish edition, 1995)


Swedish

The 1958 edition — specifically, Ole Könnecke‘s childhod copy. Note that Harold’s crayon is also red here.  As Könnecke explains, “‘Och den röda kritan’ means ‘And the red crayon.'”  Yet, he adds, “when I added a belt to Harold’s pyjama, I used a purple crayon.”

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition, 1958)

(Thanks to Mr. Könnecke for sharing this! Incidentally, if you’ve not read his children’s books, start with Anton Can Do Magic.)

The current edition, translated by Eva Håkansson.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition)


If you found the above to be of any interest, then you might also enjoy these blog posts:

Comments (7)

On Reading the Expurgated Huck Finn; or, Why We Should Teach Offensive Novels

NewSouth's Bowdlerized edition of Mark TwainAs you may recall, three years ago NewSouth Books published an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which editor Alan Gribben replaced the n-word with “slave,” and the in-word (“Injun”) with “Indian.” Many (including yours truly) criticized Gribben’s decision, and most critics focused on Huckleberry Finn. But who actually read his edition? As I write a chapter on Bowdlerized children’s literature, I decided to read Gribben’s expurgated Huck Finn. My central questions were: What’s the effect of Bowdlerizing this novel? How does it change? How doesn’t it change? Does it approach Gribben’s goal of creating a book that “can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages” (12)?

These are my answers. (Trigger warning: the n-word appears multiple times below. I’ve included it because it’s offensive, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the novel’s offensiveness without using the offending term.)

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (Norton Critical Edition)1. Reading an expurgated edition heightens one’s awareness of what has been changed. When listening to the radio and I hear a word that has been bleeped, silenced, or (more typically) electronically garbed, the omission stands out more than if it had not been altered. If I know the unexpurgated version of the song, my brain instinctively fills in the missing word; if I don’t know it, then the absent rhyme prompts my brain to produce an uncensored version of the lyric. The same is true with “slave” in the NewSouth Edition of Huck Finn: each time I encounter the word “slave,” I first think “Is that an expurgated n-word?”  I assume that it is, but always verify my assumption by checking my Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn. In its many omissions, the NewSouth edition actually made me more aware of the 219 instances of the word “nigger” in Huck Finn.

2. Gribben insists that this edition “is emphatically not intended for academic scholars” (16). I take his point, and would not assume that younger readers would be reading (as I was) with a non-Bowdlerized edition on hand. However, racism is the central theme of Huck Finn. Not only is it impossible to create an “authentic” version of the novel without the n-word, but presenting this text to young readers as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn perpetuates structural racism. Using “slave” instead of “nigger” naturalizes the racism in Huck’s caricature of Jim. Retaining the n-word makes us pay closer attention to Huck’s racism: though he is less racist than some of the other characters in the book, our narrator casually slings around the n-word, too. Gribben downplays the profound significance of removing this word: “Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers” (13).

The problem is: the caustic sting is the point. Enduring the repeated offensiveness of the n-word is a core experience of reading Huckleberry Finn. Since I am neither a nineteenth-century Americanist nor a Twain scholar, I take the edition’s back cover at its word when it describes Professor Gribben as a “Twain scholar,” and notes that he “co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America,” and “compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction.” I wonder, however, if Twain scholars still think of Gribben as a Twain scholar? To claim (as Gribben does) that Huck Finn can be both “authentic” and free of its racial slurs is preposterous.

Alan Gribben3. If I am correct in identifying the pink-faced Gribben on the back cover as white, then the NewSouth edition is also a telling example of how white privilege conceals itself from itself. Gribben tries to dilute Huck’s and Twain’s racism in order to preserve a classic American novel, obscuring the ways in which (as Toni Morrison has argued) the predominantly white American canon depends upon not just blackness but upon racism. Gribben colludes in the partial erasure of racism from American literary history, perpetuating a kind of “racism lite” — what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Though Huck, Tom, the King, the Duke, and Uncle Silas all treat Jim as less than fully human because of his race, they never once — in the NewSouth edition — use the n-word when doing so. But changing the word does not change the stereotype. In the NewSouth edition, Jim may be called a slave, but the book still caricatures him as a nigger.

Even when Twain’s novel tries to assert Jim’s humanity, such as the scene in which he remembers his deaf daughter Elizabeth, it still calls him “nigger” and represents him as one. Just paragraphs prior to the Elizabeth scene, Huck hears Jim talking in his sleep about “his wife and his children,” feeling “low and homesick.” He then observes, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so…. He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was” (125). Changing that line to “He was a might good slave, Jim was” (393) not only softens Huck’s racist condescension towards Jim, but conflates racial category (“nigger”) with job description (“slave”) — and there are moments (in Twain’s novel) when Huck distinguishes between slave and nigger. For example, at the beginning of Huck’s crisis of conscience, he makes the distinction: “Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave” (168). When this passage appears in the NewSouth edition (as it does, unchanged), there’s no way of knowing that Huck is making this lexical distinction between the two terms because NewSouth replaces all instances of the n-word with “slave.”

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884)4. The distinction is important because Twain’s characters suffer from varying degrees of racism. Though he makes liberal use of the n-word, Huck is actually less racist than (for example) his father. On some (though certainly not all) of the occasions Huck uses the n-word, he is reflecting the judgment of the community. During that same crisis-of-conscience scene, he says, “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom” (168). In conveying others’ imagined evaluation of his behavior, he echoes their style of speech: in context, the n-word could be read as Twain’s criticism of those who think that people of color should be enslaved. In contrast, Huck’s father consistently denies the humanity of people of color. Pap’s use of the n-word not only offers some indication of where Huck may have learned to deploy the term so frequently, but allows readers to make a moral distinction between father and son. Pap describes “a free nigger,” a “mulatter, most as white as a white man” who is a “p’fessor in a college and could talk all kinds of languages,” and then rails against the man’s right to vote: “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again” (27). In changing the word “nigger” to “slave,” NewSouth not only partly obscures where Huck learned his racist language, but also diminishes the full violence of Pap’s hatred.

5. Reading the word “nigger” should make you at least uncomfortable, and at most angry. Since Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is also satirical, a key emotional experience of reading is the collision between anger and humor. On the one hand, the novel has lots of satirical targets — romantic adventure narratives, religion, human gullibility, superstition in general, and (in particular) superstition in “niggers.” Its attempts at humor bump uncomfortably into its racism. The novel invites us to laugh at the superstitions of Nat (the slave who feeds Jim, on Uncle Silas’s plantation), and of Jim himself. Yet, because it presents both characters — especially Nat — as racial caricatures, the jokes aren’t funny. (Well, racists may find them funny, but other people are less likely to laugh.) Other jokes — the mocking of the King and the Duke’s con-artistry, Emmeline Grangerford’s morbid poetry — work much better. The different affective tones make for an unsettling read.

Young people should learn to read uncomfortably, to be able to cope with experiences that upset them. Huck Finn’s mix of comedy and bigotry offers an ideal occasion to do just that. In its attempts to sanitize the novel’s bigotry, Gribben’s NewSouth edition makes it harder to have that conversation.

6. Though his efforts were well-intentioned, Alan Gribben, in his NewSouth edition, attempts to conceal racism’s history and pervasiveness in American culture, while enshrining as a classic one of the books that perpetuates racism — and, in some ways, critiques racism. (I’ve dwelled on the novel’s shortcomings here, but it’s fair to call Twain a racial progressive in nineteenth-century America. Despite and because of that, it’s also fair to call both Twain and the novel racist.)

7. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel and a racist American novel. Indeed, its racism can not be separated from its genius. These twin qualities provide two excellent reasons to teach it in American high schools and colleges. White Americans need to confront America’s racist past so that they can stop perpetuating that racism in the present. People of color need to learn about America’s racist past so that they can survive in America’s racist present.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"8. There will be those who, upon reading this, say: You’re judging a nineteenth-century novel by twenty-first century standards. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend an essay by Robin Bernstein:

  • “Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde’s Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 97-119.

If you lack access to it, I will send you a pdf (my email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s”). In it, she makes the excellent point that the “that’s what everyone thought back then” argument is a weak one: “In the 1850s, some people held radically egalitarian beliefs, while others espoused white supremacy. The same is true today. What has changed is less the array of thinkable thoughts than the proportion of people espousing each belief. … But the full set of racial beliefs has remained relatively stable” (97-98). As she notes, this “relative stability of the range of racial beliefs is important because it refutes a narrative of history that falsely implies that progress is inevitable” (98). In Mark Twain’s time, all people did not hold the same beliefs. To defend Huck Finn’s racism on the grounds that they did colludes with a white supremacist understanding of history, excusing past bigotry without acknowledging the damage inflicted upon real people both past and present.

9. Gribben’s NewSouth edition not only fails to achieve its stated goals. It does real harm to those who read it. Lying to young readers is not educating them. Racist literature should of course be taught alongside other fiction and non-fiction that provide students with more accurate visions of history, allowing them to evaluate critically what they read. But lying via omission is a poor — indeed, a dangerous — solution to dealing with racism.

10. I hope it goes without saying that I welcome criticism of my analysis, above. This chapter is a work in progress. Furthermore, like Alan Gribben (if I’ve read his photo correctly), I am a white male. In the U.S., my skin color and gender allow me not only to evade the daily pain of racism, but also to benefit from it (see “white privilege” in no. 3, above). So, while I hope I’m discussing race and racism with nuance and sensitivity, I know that my own privilege may blind me to the ways I which I’m failing to do so. Where you see me failing, please call me to task. I want to know what I’m getting wrong. Thank you.

Indeed, if you’ll be at the American Studies Association conference next month, elements of the above will appear in my paper — which also addresses Doctor Dolittle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the role of affect in teaching about all three of these novels. I’d welcome your criticism and comments there, too. The session (no. 408) is Sunday at 12 noon. And, if you’re able to come, you’ll also be treated to three much wiser panelists: Brigitte Fielder, Lori L. Brooks, and Melissa Adams-Campbell.

Related posts on this blog:

Comments (3)