Blacks fought hard and long to win the right to read, but now there are blacks who are aiding the effort to ruin that precious freedom by banning books. They are doing so on the misguided belief that black and other students deserve and need protection from offensive ideas and such ugly words as "nigger."
Thus, "Huckleberry Finn," that classic anti-slavery work by Mark Twain, has been assailed as "racist" because its character "Nigger Jim" embarrasses some blacks, and because Twain, in making his indictment of human cruelty and discrimination, repeatedly used the word "nigger." The book's censors claim "nigger" is degrading and, therefore, should be banned from the classroom. I disagree.
Race has left its imprint on our language and our national character. It is in the classroom, exactly, where the word "nigger" belongs. It doesn't belong in the street, in casual conversation among whites or between blacks. It should be fully explored and understood in the context of American racial history. And it cannot be ignored or "banned."
Twain's use of the word "nigger" in his book is no more degrading or destructive to blacks' dignity than was satirist Dick Gregory's "Up From Nigger." Both are condemnatory of the segregative system and unequal conditions in America that give "nigger" its jarring impact on our conscience.
Moreover, it is certainly clear to blacks, however debatable the use of the word "nigger" may be to educators and to the bemused disciples of "good" words, that prime targets of the book-banning movement have been black authors. Hence, school boards have moved quickly to take from school libaries Eldridge Cleaver's "Soul on Ice," Langston Hughes' "Best Short Stories by Negro Writers" and Alice Childress' "A Hero Ain't Nothing But a Sandwich." So, psychologist Kenneth Clark's admonition that "next they'll be banning blacks" is not far-fetched after all; through the banning of "controversial" books, the musings of talented black authors will diminish. And the thorough education of black and white children will be sacrificed to the exact question- and-answer formulas for thinking prescribed by administrative censors.
The worst thing that could happen to the social change movement in a multiracial society is for minority ideas and writings to be censored by the majority who, for better or for worse, seek to maintain the status quo value system. Yet this is the course some urge upon America's minorities. It is a wrong turn for a movement concerned principally about correcting misinformation and false beliefs.
Our children and all students need to read the literature that shaped the Dred Scott decision; they can decipher the idiotic preachments of segregationists and can be expected to shun and survive labels as cruel and despicable as "nigger." What we dare not expose them to is an education bereft of any careful scrutiny of the patterns and strength of racial idiocy, man's incredible record of inhumanity and America's untenable political and legal therories based on racial superstitions.
Yes, we need to debunk racial stereotypes and mythology in textbooks. That's done by making accurate ones available that put in full view the positive and legion achievements of blacks in American and world history, complemented by readings in the physical and social sciences, and literature of various and opposing points of view. And sensitive, enlightened teachers need to guide students in their readings, so that the subtle becomes clear and the obvious is more closely considered. But no student's appetite for knowledge will be satisfied by removing books from his reach.
The writer is assistant director of the NAACP in New York.