A Virginia school district has pulled copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries while it weighs whether it should permanently ban the American classics because of the books’ use of racial slurs.
In response to a formal complaint from a parent, Accomack County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Holland said the district has appointed a committee to recommend whether the books should remain in the curriculum and stay in school libraries. District policy calls for the formation of the committee — which can include a principal, teachers and parents — when a parent formally files a complaint.
The parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, made an emotional plea at a school board meeting Nov. 15, saying the works had disturbed her teenage son, a biracial student at Nandua High School on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
“I’m not disputing this is great literature,” Rothstein-Williams said. “But there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”
School libraries and curriculum are frequent culture war battlegrounds, and it is not uncommon for parents to raise objections to books that many consider classics but that also contain offensive language or mature themes.
Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is the book most often targeted for removal from school classrooms and libraries among the titles the American Library Association tracks. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Harper Lee classic set in 1936 Alabama, is also high on the list of works that people seek to remove from schools. Both books use the n-word liberally.
A Montgomery County, Md., student in 2006 appealed to the school board to toss a lesson about the n-word that was meant to prepare students for reading “Mockingbird.” A Fairfax County, Va., mother launched a campaign in 2013 to remove Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” from classrooms because its portrayal of an escaped slave included bestiality, a gang rape and an infant’s murder. Parents also have objected to some modern children’s literature — including the popular Harry Potter series — because they worry that it promotes occultism.
James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said he understands the challenge of teaching books laced with language that is deeply upsetting to some. But he said schools should approach such works carefully instead of throwing them out. He said teachers can avoid having students read the works aloud, for example, and talk to them about the historical context in which they were written.
Removing the books from classrooms and libraries is censorship, he said.
“America is still deeply uncomfortable with its racial history,” LaRue said. He said that hiding the books — which many consider seminal works of American literature — amounts to “forgetting history.”
In her remarks to the Accomack school board, Rothstein-Williams said she understands that the works are considered classics, but she worries that they teach students it is okay to use racially charged words.
Rothstein-Williams did not respond to a request for comment.
“What are we teaching our children? We’re validating that these words are acceptable,” Rothstein-Williams told the school board. “They are not acceptable.”
She urged the school board to consider the appropriateness of the books given the polarization of issues about race. The tiny Accomack County School District, on the northern end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, educates about 5,000 students, 37 percent of whom are black.
“Truly we are divided,” Rothstein-Williams said. “We will lose our children if we continue to say that this is okay, that we validate these words when we should not.”