Students Debate Censorship, Language in ‘Huck Finn’ Mock Trial

Students in Colorado Academy’s sophomore American Literature class recently debated language and censorship after reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a hotly contested novel that has been challenged and banned in America several times during the last century.

According to Upper School English teacher Kathleen Law, the mock trial was an opportunity for students to deeply analyze the language and the themes in the book.

Says Law: “Because this is such a genuinely complex and difficult question, the students are poring over the book, finding new nuances in the language and content, and analyzing it from all angles.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, follows the protagonist Huckleberry “Huck” Finn, as he tries to escape from his abusive, alcoholic father. Along the way, he encounters Jim, a runaway slave, and together the two go on a journey to find freedom – one from an abusive father, and one from slavery. The book explores themes of slavery and racism, and societal hypocrisy.

Shortly after being published in the United States in 1885, the Concord, MA library association banned the book, arguing that it was “smut…suitable only for the slums.” Likewise, in 1998, the Pennsylvania NAACP “passed a resolution calling on school districts to remove the book from required reading lists.” The resolution noted the effect that the book’s repeated use of the word “nigger” could have on African American children.

Students in Law’s class staged a trial to debate the issues of censorship, language and uncomfortable themes. The trial heard three different arguments. The prosecution argued that the original book should be banned from all required school reading lists across the state, while the defense argued that students should read the original book with its original language. In addition, students argued for the New South Books Edition, which altered the controversial “n-word” to “slave,” allowing for students to explore the powerful metaphors and questions brought up by the book, without the offensive and hurtful language.

Sophomore Alex Kim delivered an argument on the first day of the trial. Standing in front of class, he read a statement he had prepared on his computer.

“It is imperative that students are able to view their country’s history from an objective perspective, unencumbered by the veil of American exceptionalism,” says Kim. “Only by confronting and understanding the reality of our past can we hope to overcome its faults. Yes, the book and n-word make kids uncomfortable… . Applying to college, going to a job interview, meeting new people – all of these are situations where students might face discomfort. But, we must learn to overcome this discomfort, embrace it and challenge it.”

According to Law, the trial inspired students to think critically on their toes.

“In preparation for this debate, students tried to anticipate how the other teams might respond to their evidence, and I have been impressed by how carefully they are weighing the different perspectives one can bring to a text.”

Jurors, made up of parent volunteers and other Colorado Academy teachers, heard the arguments before deciding upon a winner in each class. In their notes, they praised each side.

Says one juror: “My preconception before the debate was in favor of the Defense. I’m a little surprised to say that some of the counter arguments were persuasive to me. At this point, I find myself coming down on the side of New South Books, which I am almost embarrassed to admit!”

According to Law, this exercise not only allowed students to delve more deeply into literature, but to also examine current events through questions posed by the piece.

“This book poses several profound questions about what it means to be an American and about race relations in America, and the students are grappling with these questions in very sophisticated ways.”