I can only imagine how the use of the "N-word" and the treatment of Jim by so many characters might seemingly first be seen as offensive by people of color. I know that when we read it in class, we never read the N-word aloud, not only out of respect for any black students, but because I personally find the word offensive. There are literary purists that believe that within the context of the book, it can be read aloud—but in creating such an offensive climate, I would assert that it is difficult for the true message Twain was sharing to make it through to the individual reader, and the class as a whole.
What I have always found so heartwarming about the book is the "ignorant" backwoods Huck Finn, without formal education or religion, and his ability to find the true meaning of brotherly love and deep, abiding friendship. Huck does trick Jim once into believing that Huck has been lost from the raft, presumably having died. Huck is thoughtless in this, and when he sees Jim's absolute devastation, he is ashamed. From that point on, Huck has learned a lesson about caring for the feelings of others—regardless of race; however, he also learns how much he means to Jim, the runaway slave who has already lost his family.
Twain allows us to study the mind of a Southern born and raised youngster who believes that slavery is an acceptable way of life. We see him struggle with with his conscience in facing what society demands—turning Jim in. And we finally find that he is loving and strong enough to defy society and God (or so he has been taught), to protect Jim and go to hell if that is what it costs him.
Huck writes a letter to Miss Watson to tell her where Jim (as her runaway slave) is. At first he feels relieved of a great burden, and is sure he will be able to pray. He is amazed "how near I come to being lost and going to hell." But he does not pray and he makes no move to send the letter. He begins to think. And in this we find Huck not to be ignorant at all, but mindful of what he is doing, observant of what society and God expect, and strong enough to make his own choice, despite what the norm of the South is at that time. In making up his mind, he believes he is doomed, but is willing to be so for his best friend:
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.
Huck makes the right choice, ironically, even though he believes he is eternally lost in that moment. I believe there is something heroic in his decision, and this is a rare thing for young people to see in society today. It's not an easy book for many kids to read—not being readers of any kind outside of the classroom—but the overall message is a fine one, and I believe it does belong in today's classroom.