The principal of Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County has recommended that "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," the classic American novel by Mark Twain, be removed from the school's curriculum as racist.
The recommendation of principal John Martin followed a report of the school's racially mixed, six-member faculty Human Relations Committee, which objected to "the flagrant use of the word 'nigger' and the demeaning way in which black people are portrayed in the book." It unanimously asked that the book not be used in classes.
Martin sent the report to another committee of faculty, parents and administrators, which affirmed the recommendation. Martin asked the county school administration Monday to bar his teachers from assigning the novel or reading it aloud in class, although the book would remain in the school library and on its supplementary reading lists and could be discussed in class as part of the body of Mark Twain's work.
Martin's recommendation would have to be approved by school Area 1 superintendent, Doris Torrize, Superintendent Linton Deck and the Fairfax School Board before Martin's recommendation could be carried out. Martin, on vacation during the county-wide spring break, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"The book is poison," said Twain administrative aide John H. Wallace, a member of the Human Relations Committee. "It is anti-American; it works against the melting pot theory of our country; it works against the idea that all men are created equal; it works against the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and against the preamble that guarantees all men life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Martin's recommendation brought criticism yesterday from education and civil liberties officials. "We find it extraordinary and sad . . . ," said Chan Kendrick, executive director of the Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Kendrick said the ACLU will fight the effort to remove the book from the curriculum.
"There are scores of books offensive to one group or another which are recognized as being great pieces of literature," Kendrick said. "You need to read those books in their historical context."
"Many teachers feel there is a great need to teach students about feelings and events in history," said Barby Halstead of the Fairfax Education Association, a 6,200-member teacher's group. "While the word nigger is wrong, immoral by today's standards, the fact that it did happen shouldn't be overlooked."
Fairfax School Board Chairman Ann Kahn said in a statement that Martin's action was "the recommendation of a single school and only the first step in an established process set forth in a regulation in effect since 1977, which governs the evaluation and challenge of text books and library materials.
"The action by one school on the use of 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is subject to the review by the central administration and the school board and cannot be considered to be a position of the Fairfax County public school system."
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has generated controversy in the past because of its characterization of blacks, although when the book was published in 1884 it was considered progressive for the way it portrayed the injustice of racial prejudice.
The novel, written by Samuel L. Clemens under the pen name Mark Twain, tells the story of a young runaway, Huck Finn, who meets Jim, a runaway slave. Together they float down the Mississippi on a raft, where the innocent Huck encounters corruption, moral decay and the evils of slavery for the first time. Huck learns of the dignity and worth of a human life from Jim.
Written in Twain's satirical style, the novel, said Georgetown English professor Thomas Walsh, is recognized as one of the three greatest works of American fiction. Part of the book's significance, Walsh said, "is that Huck, an innocent, reacts against a society which is prejudiced against blacks and through his innocence develops a friendship with Jim even though Huck himself has imbibed societal prejudices throughout his whole life."
"Any kid in junior high could get this message," Walsh said.
"It is asinine to think that," responded Wallace. "How many children understand satire?"