Thursday, January 23, 2020
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Virginia district considers banning racial books

A school district in Virginia is considering banning the use of two of the most banned books in American history because a parent complained about the racial slurs used in the books, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

A passage from Chapter 6 of one book and the cover of the other. (Voxitatis)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, written in the 1880s, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Nelle Harper Lee, written in 1960, are considered classics of American literature, but they do feature language that would be considered inappropriate today because of racial slurs.

Political correctness

Some districts have ordered versions of Huck Finn with the N-word replaced, in all occurrences, with the word slave. That doesn’t appear to be an option here, though.

So the Accomack County Public Schools may take the books off the reading list, WPXI-TV reports. If they ban the books, all copies would be removed from the libraries and the books wouldn’t be used by classroom teachers as part of the curriculum in any course.

“I keep hearing, ‘This is a classic, This is a classic,’ … I understand this is a literature classic. But at some point, I feel that children will not—or do not—truly get the classic part—the literature part, which I’m not disputing,” the Monitor quoted the mother of a biracial student as saying at a November 15 school board meeting. “This is great literature. But there (are so many) racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.”

She continued to say that by teaching books with racial slurs, the schools and our society would be teaching students that the use of the racial slurs is acceptable.

Historical whitewashing

In the case of Huck Finn, the book was written more than 130 years ago, when the US was a much different nation. Today’s black students, however, hear the N-word differently from how white students hear it, and in high school, they may be too immature to consider the historical context of the usage of the word.

Therefore, proponents of banning the books argue, we should prevent students from reading the books, thus cleansing the context of this dark time in our histories from our school curricula.

Doing so, these people seem to believe, will provide a more welcoming learning environment for students in today’s school, despite the fact that people who want to ban the books acknowledge that they are great works of literature and a part of who we are as a nation.

Merits of uncomfortable learning

Often, the greatest creativity comes when we are saddest, and the greatest learning comes when we realize how little we understand about some topic. In the case of relations between people of different races, it may be better, in the safe setting of a classroom, to make kids, black and white, uncomfortable for a brief moment in order to spur questioning and curiosity.

What is it about the N-word that makes black students uncomfortable? And more importantly, why don’t white students seem to understand why black students are offended by the use of the N-word? Ban the book, and these conversations are held silent. Teach the book properly, and these conversations launch an opportunity for cross-cultural or interracial understanding.

“The question is not whether or not to teach this book, but how to teach this book, and it is an incredible opportunity to get students talking about our racial history and our racial present,” the Monitor quotes University of California, Santa Cruz, literature professor Jody Greene as saying. “As teachers, if we want a better racial future in this country, we have to guide the conversation better.”

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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