It's scary to hear talk of "banning books." That's one reason the action by an intermediate school in Fairfax County to remove "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from the school's assigned reading list is being greeted with such alarm. It invokes fear of damage to First Amendment rights and sets the teeth of civil libertarians on edge.
There are several distinctions that need to be made.
Some of the people trying to ban books today are ultra-conservatives who are trying to avoid exposing their children to lifestyles different from their own. In cases such as the present one, New Righters are fond of using the First Amendment as a smokescreen to justify their own actions, which in reality are quite different.
First, the principal, faculty and parents of Mark Twain Intermediate School are not banning "Huck Finn." They would keep it in the school library and on supplementary reading lists, and it could be discussed in class as part of the body of Twain's work. They would be removing it from the assigned reading list in an effort to try to protect the black children who sit in classrooms and have to be exposed to "the flagrant use of the word 'nigger' and the demeaning way in which black people are portrayed in the book," in the words of a faculty committee.
The push for racism-free literature is not a call for censorship, but rather a push for responsibility on the part of educators, librarians and authors.
Washington children's book author Eloise Greenfield argues this way to the civil libertarians: "Where rights conflict, one must sometimes supersede the other. Freedom of speech does not, for example, allow words to be deliberately used in a way that would cause someone to suffer a heart attack. By the same token, the use of words in ways that cause psychological and emotional damage is an unacceptable exercise of free speech. First Amendment rights are crucial to a healthy society. No less crucial is the Fourteenth Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection under the law."
In an ideal world, I would be vehemently against not exposing young people to "Huck Finn." Banning books is dangerous business. Education should, I feel, create the sensibility by which people can critically judge what they read. Children must be taught to use their critical faculties to understand what is being said in books like Twain's, to understand the author's prejudices and to have enough confidence in themselves not to be affected by someone else's pathology. But that is a long-range process. It calls for a road map.
Such a road map was the controversial 72-page instructional kit on the Ku Klux Klan released last September by the National Education Association. It contained 11 detailed lesson-plans designed to teach young people the history of the Klan and racism in America, to stimulate them to analyze the problem and encourage them to act for justice and equality. It aroused controversy when the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, a strident enemy of KKK activities, nonetheless disagreed with the NEA's assertion that the klan is an outgrowth of a racist society. B'nai B'rith called the klan an aberration in a society that is not innately racist.
This discussion not only was healthy, but also illustrated the emotional explosiveness of racial subjects, especially in the classroom.
That's why if "Huck Finn" is going to be discussed, it should be taken up under the guidance of a teacher or a librarian who is trained to discuss the historical context of the book and the author. This is the way we develop the sensibilities that will eliminate the banning of books once and for all.
"Huckleberry Finn" is a classic. But the messages it carries for both black and white children are at best mixed, and it cries out for careful interpretation. That is what the school wants to give it.
We have to keep working for two ideals--of having people sufficiently sensitive and emotionally healthy that they understand the damage racism does to other people, and of having black people in particular become confident enough that they are not afflicted by other people's prejudices.
Meanwhile, books with literary and historical value but with racial implications that children cannot be expected to understand must be presented in full and fair context. The emotional health of our children must in this instance come first.