A Minnesota school district is dropping two classic novels, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” from its required reading list because of the books’ liberal use of a racial slur.
Officials at Duluth Public Schools say the move, which follows similar ones taken by other school districts in Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania in recent years, was a response to complaints they had received in the past. The books are still available in libraries, and students can read them on their own time, but school officials will look at other novels on the same topic to add to its curriculum, Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.
“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary, who was not available for comment Wednesday, told the paper.
The Duluth Public Schools have it wrong on three counts:
1. Of course, the N-word makes us all feel uncomfortable because it marginalizes people. That’s precisely why we should address that use of language: to see what’s beneath the use of that word and develop sensitivity about its use and the damage it causes. The N-word can be seen as what it is: just a word – not a good word or a bad word – but one that has power because of how it has been and currently is being used in our society. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the word was used because that’s how people of that time talked. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the use of that word showed how prejudiced, cruel characters talked.
2. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the moral center of the book is when Huck, who lives in a time and place in which African Americans are regarded as property and not as human beings, decides to treat a black man as an equal. Huck knows, from all that he has been taught by his church and his community, that he must turn in Jim, a runaway slave, so that Jim will be returned to his rightful owner, but he decides not to do that. Huck is sure what his consequence will be and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” He thought he would be condemned to hell for all eternity but could not do as his church and community dictated. He could not treat Jim as property. Why? Because he realized that Jim was his friend, his equal, not a possession. What better example of equity and dignity for all people, black and white, than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
3. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, a lawyer in Alabama, takes a case that anyone else would regard as an open and shut case against a black man. A white woman accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of making sexual advances to her. The all-white jury never doubted his guilt. No evidence was needed; his blackness condemned him. Atticus presented evidence to show Tom Robinson’s innocence and prevented the community from lynching him. Atticus taught his young daughter, whether it be Tom Robinson or Bo Radley, a white man in the community who was a social pariah because of his disabilities, that she should treat each person with respect, that each person has dignity. Atticus told her that she should try to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others. The book offers a criticism of prejudice and of those who use the N-word.
I have been a central office administrator who receives the complaints about books being used in the schools. Each complaint always began with these words: On page…., this was said or happened ” and “On this page, this was said or happened….. After the complaining person described precisely what had happened on those offending pages. I would ask the person this question, “Did you read the whole book?” Every time, the answer was “No”. I would then explain that reading the whole book would be a good idea. Objections to books, most often, result from not understanding the context of the objection.
Michael Cary is wrong. It’s not about finding other books “on the topic” to add to the curriculum. Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird are works of art. They are not replicable. We study them not because they are about a “topic” but because they offer unique ways for students to question the human experience and to make sense of their own lives. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird offer students what no other books ” on the topic” can possibly offer.
If we didn’t have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, I would want to make them up.
How else could we deal sensitively and poignantly with the fact that language can hurt people? How else could we bring up questions of what it means to be hero in our society which has questions of racism at its core? How else could we explore issues of racial prejudice? How else could we explore questions about an individual’s relationship to the norms of American society? How else could we explore questions of justice and human dignity in American society?
These questions are best generated when students read these books as part of a class. Reading on one’s own never brings up as many questions and ideas as reading in a thoughtful way with other readers. Also, reading these books in class is the way to develop students into better, more mature readers. The Duluth Public Schools, which restricts students to reading these books on their own, stands in the way of the students’ growth as readers.
The people complaining about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird and the people who made the decision to remove the books should read the whole books. And then we’ll see what happens.
Meanwhile, the rest of us not living in Duluth, Minnesota or in school districts in Virginia, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania who similarly banned those books had best make sure that our own children have the opportunity to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, make sure that our own children are truly educated.