Cameron Bailey on Reading 'Huckleberry Finn' Aloud: 'It Was Humiliating, Of Course.'

7:03 AM PST 01/10/2011 by By Etan Vlessing

Toronto International Film Festival topper recalls handing classmates the N-word to be used as 'ammunition' in the school yard.

TORONTO -- Roger Ebert may have apologized for his controversial use of the N-word on Twitter, but Toronto International Film Festival co-director Cameron Bailey isn’t letting the heat-seeking film critic off the hook.

“Re: "n*****" vs. "slave," ask a 5th grade black kid reading the book aloud to a class full of whites,” Bailey tweeted back to Ebert over the weekend. Turns out, that young, black child was Bailey himself, in a 1970s Toronto classroom, forced to read from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in front of his classmates.

“It was humiliating, of course,” Bailey told a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio program Monday morning. “The experience doesn’t stop in the classroom. You go out to recess, the other kids have the word and its ammunition and that becomes a part of your week or that month or your whole year at school,” he continued.

Bailey, jumping into a literary language debate Monday, said he’s against censorship in literature as members of minorities inevitably confront racially-charged language like the N-word. “I’ve heard that word thrown at me, I’ve heard that word in popular culture now, and it’s not pleasant,” Bailey said.

The TIFF topper does favor teaching young people Mark Twain’s racially-sensitive novel in its right context, and starting in high school. Bailey also said sanitizing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might work if teachers didn’t have the time or ability to provide context to the controversial novel. “But it’s not true to the text. If you do it at the right level and with the right kind of equipment, it provides an opportunity to actually let students understand the power that those words still have,” he said of the N-word and other racially-charged language in world literature taught in schools.

Lightbox, the Toronto festival’s new year-round home, recently screened D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, with its explicitly racist content. ”It’s a great text in the history of cinema, but it is profoundly racist,” he argued. At the same time, Bell Lightbox didn’t screen the classic film and its historical distortions without discussion. “We didn’t just throw the film up on the screen. We had opportunities to provide contexts to teach about it,” Bailey said.

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