A Minnesota school district is dropping two classic novels, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” from its required reading list because of the books’ liberal use of a racial slur.
Officials at Duluth Public Schools say the move, which follows similar ones taken by other school districts in Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania in recent years, was a response to complaints they had received in the past. The books are still available in libraries, and students can read them on their own time, but school officials will look at other novels on the same topic to add to its curriculum, Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.
“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary, who was not available for comment Wednesday, told the paper.
Harper Lee and Mark Twain didn’t shy away from using the n-word when they wrote the American classics. Both books have historically been among the American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books. Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a story about a poor white boy and a slave, most recently made the list in 2015, when a group of students in Montgomery County in Pennsylvania said its use of the n-word made them uncomfortable.
Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book about racism in the United States, has long been targeted for removal from libraries and schools. In 1966, a school board in Virginia invited the ire of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who mocked the board in a letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” Lee wrote. “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of double-think.”
“I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism,” she added. “Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
Free-speech organizations also have strongly criticized decisions to ban the books from classrooms and libraries. In a statement Wednesday, the National Coalition Against Censorship urged Duluth Public Schools to reconsider.
“While it is understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students, the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom,” the group said. “On the contrary, the classroom is where the history, use and destructiveness of this language should be examined and discussed.”
“Parents can request an alternative book if they object to an assigned text,” the group added. “But no parent or group of students is qualified to make the choice of what other children should read.”
The group was similarly critical of a Mississippi school district’s decision last year to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” from an eighth-grade reading list. The Biloxi School District later backtracked, allowing students to read the book if they wanted to — but only if their parents allowed it.
In 2016, a Virginia school district pulled copies of both books from classrooms and libraries after receiving a complaint from a parent.
Avi Selk and Moriah Balingit contributed to this story.