Renton schools keep ‘Huck Finn’ on reading list, amid protests from alumna

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is considered an American classic and one of the first great American novels, and it’s taught in classrooms as such. But Mark Twain’s book has stirred controversy since its 1885 publication. Initially for its coarse nature. More recently for its colored description of the American South during the slavery years.

“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is considered an American classic and one of the first great American novels, and it’s taught in classrooms as such. But Mark Twain’s book has stirred controversy since its 1885 publication. Initially for its coarse nature. More recently for its colored description of the American South during the slavery years.

Calista Phair is one of the book’s more recent, and more persistent protesters.

A 2004 graduate of Renton High School, Phair recently requested that Renton School District remove the book from its supplemental reading list. Her grandmother Beatrice Clark made the same request in 2003, after she learned Phair’s 11th grade language-arts class was reading the book. (Phair excused herself from the reading.)

Renton School District’s instructional materials committee recently came to the same decision as in 2003: keep Huck Finn on the approved reading list.

Phair doesn’t agree with the decision. Further, she says the district and school board did not follow the correct legal procedures when reaching the decision and responding to her complaint. District spokesperson Randy Matheson says the district has followed correct legal procedures.

Phair’s response? A protest outside the Renton School District office. She and a handful of supporters brought their signs and their voices on that recent rainy day.

“Huck Finn must go!” they chanted. Their signs spelled why: “Nigger nigger out the door, don’t call us “niggers” anymore,” and “Racism in RSD” (Renton School District).

Phair and Clark object to Twain’s novel because of its use of the word “nigger,” which appears in the text more than 200 times. Huck Finn is a tale of two fugitives: a young boy and an older runaway slave and their adventures rafting down the Mississippi River.

District teachers choosing to teach the book discuss Twain’s use of the word with their classes. District staff also consulted the education director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Staff then created a guidebook helping teachers introduce the book.

But a flyer for Phair’s protest says the enhanced instruction is merely “niggerology.” Phair didn’t read Twain’s book with her 11th grade class. She read a different book instead. But she stayed in the classroom for the two-week long discussion before the book was read. As an African American student, Phair found the discussion degrading.

“I was beyond offended,” the now 21-year-old Phair says. “Basically we had a discussion for two weeks about the word nigger, the “N” word, and it was extensive — why the word is this way, why slaves acted certain ways. It was really offensive, really degrading. It kind of made me feel lesser of a person.”

Phair says one of her classmates also chose not to read Huck Finn. Matheson says he doesn’t know of any other complaints or refusals to read the book. District students can opt out of reading any assigned book.

Phair didn’t do much Huck Finn protesting between the district’s 2003 decision and her more recent complaint. But not for lack of interest. She’s been busy, enrolled at Bennett College, a historically black, women’s college in Greensboro, N.C.

“I still feel very passionate about the book,” Phair says. “I still feel that due to the fact I was in Renton School District, I did graduate, I was in the classroom, being told ‘It’s your history.’ I still think it should be out of school.”

Phair objected to the book in 2003, handing out flyers in the halls and landing herself in newspapers, on radio and TV. Still, it was her grandmother who made the formal request. Phair wanted her chance.

But district staff say Phair has yet to make a formal request. In order to do that, she has to orally present her case to the instructional materials committee, says district spokesperson Matheson.

Matheson says Phair has been invited to address the committee

during four separate meetings. Matheson says the committee finally voted to keep Huck Finn on the supplemental reading list after Phair’s repeated “no shows.”

Phair says she has received invitations to a couple meetings, but chose not to attend. She did not participate in the first phone meeting because she says committee members did not comply with her request to know the meeting’s location. She did not attend subsequent meetings because she says the committee held an illegal secret ballot vote. Phair appealed this vote to the school board. Matheson says the committee then set up a series of meetings for Phair. She says she didn’t come because the school board did not respond to her appeal, and to attend a meeting would be “repeating things.”

Matheson also says Phair’s family sent district staff a letter asking them to cease communication with the family. Phair says she doesn’t know anything about any such letter.

What she does know is she will continue to object to Huck Finn’s use in the classroom. She has no objections to the book’s inclusion in school libraries.

Neither do those who showed up at her recent protest. Attendees included Phair’s grandma Clark, her father Walter Phair, Rev. James Barnett of Martin Luther King Memorial Baptist Church in the Renton Highlands, Miss Pearl of the Black Action Network and Velma Stewart from Tacoma.

Stewart tried (unsuccessfully) to get Huck Finn out of Tacoma classrooms when her son was a student there.

Like Phair, Stewart and the other protest attendees object to the use of the word “nigger.”

“We’ve dedicated ourselves to the elimination of that word,” Rev. Barnett said at the protest. “We’ll do whatever we can to make sure the word is not celebrated — in any way — in poetry, literature, whatever.”

Clark says her views are described by Phair’s protest slogan: “In a book or in your face, the nigger word is a disgrace.”

“I believe in that,” Clark says. “It’s huge, too profound, too painful for us to allow Renton School District to use the word nigger, whether Mark Twain wrote the book or not.”

Many of Phair’s supporters say use of Huck Finn does not improve race relations.

“We don’t seem able to come up even though Barack Obama is the presidential nominee,” says Stewart, who is African-American

Lynda Hampton has a different view. The Hazen High School English Department chair has taught Huck Finn for more than 20 years, about 15 at Hazen.

She has heard only one objection to the book, while teaching in New Mexico. And the objection wasn’t from the student, but her parents. After Hampton talked with the parents, the student chose to read the book.

Hampton instructs all of Hazen’s 11th grade English teachers to teach Huck Finn. She calls the book “the first true American novel.”

Hampton disagrees with Phair’s request to remove the book from classrooms.

“A few trying to decide for many what they should or should not read is very disturbing,” she says.

Moreover, Hampton says the book is a reflection of the time in which it was written.

“I don’t see how anyone who is familiar with the time and history and Mark Twain would have objections to the book,” she says.

Hampton’s Huck Finn instruction includes a lengthy discussion of the word “nigger.” She says the discussion “enriches all the students. It helps them better understand each other.”

Phair is not through with her protests. She says she may even expand the protests to other school districts.

“I really don’t think any other African American should be subjected to the book,” she says.

But teachers like Hampton will not stop teaching the book without a fight.

“Absolutely, most emphatically,” Hampton says of her intention to continue teaching the book.