Why a Virginia school considers banning two American classics

The racial slurs in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are reopening debate about the value of uncomfortable conversations in the classroom.

In this 1962 photo originally released by Universal, actor Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird," based on the novel by Harper Lee.

Two of the United States’ most banned titles are once again at issue in Virginia, where one school is considering pulling them from the curriculum after a parental complaint over racist language used in both books.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are no strangers to the American Library Association’s most banned books list, nor are they unfamiliar to the millions of American teenagers who read them each year as part of their schools’ curricula. The fight over whether these books remain valuable teaching tools decades, even a century, after publication is longstanding and complex. How should schools approach such material, if at all?

As questions of political correctness, historical whitewashing, and the merits of uncomfortable learning continue to trouble school administrators around the country, this incident serves as an example of how difficult it is for educators to reconcile the literary and historical value of novels such as "Huck Finn" with sensitivity towards those who have experienced prejudice.

"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," says University of California, Santa Cruz literature professor Jody Greene. "As teachers, if we want a better racial future in this country, we have to guide the conversation better."

The Accomack County Public Schools in Virginia are currently in the process of reviewing the two books, and deciding whether it is worthwhile to keep them in classrooms and school libraries.

The debate began when the mother of a biracial high school student in the schools filed a complaint with the administration, saying that her son had struggled to read a page in "Huck Finn" that was filled with racial slurs.

"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," she said at a Nov. 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."

"So what are we teaching our children? We're validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means," she added.

Does teaching these books, or other examples of difficult and uncomfortable racially charged literature, mean that teachers are condoning this language? Of course not, many literature experts say – in fact, for many teachers, avoiding such stories would amount to erasing the reality of racism. The real challenge, they say, is that the outcome of any lesson depends largely on the teachers involved.

"I think the key point to make here is that the burden of freedom of speech is not borne equally by all people. African-American students hear those words differently – the argument for banning the books is that the white kids don’t bear the burden of freedom of speech in the same way," Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University who specializes in children's literature, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dr. Nel says that while "Huck Finn," for example, is often touted as a great American classic, it is certainly not progressive insofar as it portrays African-American characters as racist stereotypes.

Nevertheless, the fact that these books make many students and teachers uncomfortable is not a reason not to teach them, Nel says. In fact, the very discomfort that they provoke can be incredibly helpful in the hands of a sensitive teacher who can guide students through the experience and create greater dialogue.

"The only way to teach these books properly is to be uncomfortable," Nel tells the Monitor. "That is why these books should not be banned."

"We need to provide resources and support for teachers to know how to curate difficult conversations," says Greene. "We cannot expect teachers and professors to do a good job of dealing with sensitive material unless we give them support on how to deal with these conversations."

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom concurs. Director James LaRue tells the Monitor in a phone interview that the ALA supports not removing books from the curriculum, but rather adding more perspectives.

Teachers who are uncomfortable with the racial caricatures in "Huck Finn" or the use of slurs in "To Kill A Mockingbird" might add another book written from the perspective of an African-American person in the deep South, he says.

Book bans like the one proposed in Virginia are often met with opposition, for the sheer fact that banning books smacks of free speech restrictions that many Americans like to pride themselves on avoiding.

Other parents in the same Virginia school district have voiced concerns about slippery slopes, fearing even a well-intentioned ban could give way to wider censorship, local news site WAVY reports.

Amy Pattee, a professor of library science and children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston, says that avoiding conversations about controversial literature and cultural subjects can create disconcerting currents of censorship in society. 

According to Dr. Pattee, recent studies by the School Library Journal show librarians increasingly engaging in self-censorship: choosing, without any directive from above, not to display books or materials that may be controversial. These choices, she says, are based on the fear of public recourse but are indicative of worrying concerns among librarians.

Instead of restricting literature from positions of authority, Pattee says, officials should trust teachers to evaluate and teach course materials in a constructive way, creating conversation rather than censorship.

Whatever the path that institutions take to achieve these conversations, many experts agree that open dialogue is something worth fighting for.

As Dr. Greene told the Monitor, "I sympathize with the institutions who are under this kind of pressure. I don’t think that teaching racist books is a racist act – it's part of doing anti-racist work if teachers address it carefully. If we fear controversy so much that we refuse to have open, public conversations about race, we are sending ourselves into a far worse racial future than even our racial past."

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