“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain is one of the most controversial books in the American literary canon, particularly because of its frequent use of the N word. But for Enrique Salmon, a young Native kid trying to master the English language, “Huckleberry Finn” was the book that launched his lifelong love of reading.
I'm Enrique Salmon. I'm a professor of American Indian Studies at California State University East Bay. And I've also written the book, “Eating the Landscape,” and I have a book coming out right now about American Indian ethnobotany called “Iwígara.”
When I was growing up, I couldn't really read or write or speak English very well, up until like 11th grade. It was amazing I even made it to 11th grade. And then there was a teacher, an English teacher, Mrs. Anderson, who decided she was going to bring me up to speed with regards to being able to read and write in English. And she introduced me to Mark Twain, and more specifically, “Huckleberry Finn.”
And I remember working my way through “Huckleberry Finn,” and reading about Huck and Jim and the Mississippi River and all of those things. It really had this impact on me as a person of color of how people from different ethnic backgrounds can just be friends, in that space along the Mississippi River and in this area that was actually very racist.
I can understand where people are coming from with the use of the N word that Mark Twain used. But I look at it from the perspective that the Mark Twain was writing in a period and from a perspective, emerging from his own experience. He never says if he liked or disliked the word, it was just, that was his experience, then the fictional characters experience. And we have to acknowledge that experience and be mindful of that.
Cultures and people change through time, and today we realize that that word is not acceptable anymore, and we have to respect that as well.
That book led me to other Mark Twain books, that led me to Hemingway and “The Old Man and the Sea,” that led me to Steinbeck, and to Faulkner. And then, and ever since, I've just had this incredible fascination with books and with reading and to the point where I'm a writer myself.
And that's the power of an 11th-grade English teacher, taking it upon herself to teach a young Native guy to read and write through Mark Twain.