In Which the Author Recalls Reading Huck Finn As a Child

January 10, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 2 2 min read

coverThe first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must’ve been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch.

We moved away from the house I’m remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents’ minivan. The edges of the thin pages were “gilt,” giving the book a faintly biblical aspect.

I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I’d come across a word I’d never seen before.

I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word “nigger” mean?

My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day — maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table — let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn’t “where do babies come from?”, but it was close.

Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: “this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it’s one of the worst things you can call someone.”

They did not, I note now, take the book away from me.

I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book.

To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word “slave” meant.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

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