Here we go again.
The Accomack County Public Schools in Virginia has temporarily pulled copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about racial slurs in both classics, and has formed a committee to recommend a permanent policy.
A parent told the school board in November that her biracial son at Nandua High School on Virginia’s Eastern Shore was disturbed by racial slurs he read in the books. She was quoted as saying:
“I’m not disputing this is great literature. 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.”
There’s no arguing that the nation is currently witnessing division. But Peter Greene, a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania, noted on his blog, Curmudgucation, that while Huck Finn is indeed “a problematic text for many reasons,” books should not be banned.
American literature is a field full of land mines because American culture is a field full of land mines; as I tell my students every year, it is impossible to talk about American literature without talking about issues of race, gender and religion, and that means dealing with issues to which people are sensitive.
He also said there is a new reason not to ban books: to ensure that America’s history is not whitewashed. (See text from his blog below.)
In her story, my colleague Moriah Balingit quotes James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, as saying that he understands why some books are upsetting to some students, but he said schools should approach such works carefully instead of throwing them out altogether and that students should learn the historical context in which they were written.
A book challenge is nothing new at libraries and schools, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which for more than 20 years has collected reports on formal, written book challenges — at least the ones it is made aware of; the ALA said it believes that most such challenges go unreported.
The specific reasons that books are challenged vary; some people object to material, for example, about sex, or religion, or Satanism.
Sitting atop the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the Decade, 2000-2009, was the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, challenged by people who complained the books were about the occult and Satanism, and were anti-family.
From 1990-1999, the most challenged books were the “Scary Stories” series by Alvin Schwartz. Reasons cited for challenges were Occult/Satanism, Religious Viewpoint, Violence. But in 2009, these books dropped off the top 10 most challenged books.
The top 10 most challenged books in 2015 were:
- “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green
Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit and unsuited for age group
- “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James
Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”)
- “I Am Jazz,” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
Reasons: inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint and unsuited for age group
- “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out,” by Susan Kuklin
Reasons: anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”)
- “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Mark Haddon
Reasons: offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group and other (“profanity and atheism”)
- The Bible
Reasons: religious viewpoint
- “Fun Home,” by Alison Bechdel
Reasons: violence and other (“graphic images”)
- “Habibi,” by Craig Thompson
Reasons: nudity, sexually explicit and unsuited for age group
- “Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan,” by Jeanette Winter
Reasons: religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence
- “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan
Reasons: homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”)
Greene also wrote on his blog:
For any teacher who handles sensitive material, it’s hugely important to hear the concerns of parents and students and not simply dismiss them for being ignorant, uninformed or wrongheaded. People feel what they feel, and even if they are wrongheaded, nobody ever changed their feelings because someone said, “Your feelings are stupid and you should have different ones.”
But this parent is wrong. There are miles of arguments out there about the banning of literary classics and why we should not do it. American culture, shared heritage, author’s intent to condemn the bad words, blah blah blah. But in 2016, as we enter the Age of Trump, there’s another reason we have to keep teaching these works. Call it the gaslighting defense.
Because among the many things that Trump has elevated further into the mainstream, we have the 6-year-old’s defense. “I never did that!” We are now taking denial to new heights with a president-elect who is willing to declare that he never said that which we have him on tape saying.
Among the many things I’m braced for is the gaslighting of America, the attempt to talk our way out of past offenses with a determined, “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. That never happened.”
…And so to all the other defenses of classic literature, let’s make sure we’ve included the idea of gaslight protection, the necessity of reminding ourselves that, yes, this stuff did happen, and yes, it was bad, really bad, and, no, people aren’t just making it up for political leverage. The best antidote to gaslighting is reality, even if that reality is ugly and hurtful. It’s our job as educators to make sure that we aren’t just dropping the ugly reality on our students like a pile of railroad ties; we’re supposed to be right there to supply context and support and reassurance that, yes, this was just as wrong as you think it is even as we revisit our past through the eyes of authors who also knew that this treatment was wrong.
Yes, Huck Finn is a problematic text for many reasons. But it’s also the first real attempt to create a truly American novel, and consequently its problems are a reflection of America’s problems, from the ugly racism of slavery to the subtler racism of folks who believed they were anti-racism. But for me, that’s why in this day and age teaching it is more important than ever — to say, “Yes, this happened, and this is how we were, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”