Today in class we discussed a few examples of Huck Finn using the n-word. Many in the class defended Huck by pointing out his youth and by returning to an earlier instance of Jim, a runaway slave, using the same racist language.
To me the word is closely connected to power. Within the context of a racist 19th C. America, Huck a young white boy enjoys more power than Jim, a full-grown man. The use of the n-word by either character is a reminder of the unequal status accorded people of different race.
That the word was, sadly, commonplace does not mitigate the ugliness of the language. Rather than attack or defend Huck, though, we might turn our attention to the author. Mark Twain uses the n-word over 200 times in the novel. (Or should I say, his characters do!). Re-examine instances of racist language in the novel. Can Twain be said to use the word in order to comment on the hypocrisy of the time? On the characters he presents? Is part of the desire to defend Huck rooted in the kind of narrative we hope to find in the book rather than the narrative arc Twain intends?
As you think about these issues, you might also want to check out this interesting piece on The N-word done by Minnesota Public Radio: