Again, the main point of my original article is being overlooked. Mark Twain and Harper Lee are not, I suspect, central to most anti-racism education programs. In fact, I never said they were essential parts of any effective anti-racism education efforts. They are read largely in English classes, but because Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird deal in part with racism, it’s impossible to have a discussion of these books in any class without spending some time on the subject of racism.
As I have pointed out again and again, it is impossible for a novelist or artist (to say nothing of a historian) who wishes to address the issue of racism through their work to do so in a way that makes people feel comfortable. It’s not a comfortable topic and any effort to clean it up will inevitably be dishonest. I say that while keeping in mind some aspects of the history won’t be appropriate for younger students, but in this context we’re talking middle school age and older.
If a writer has addressed racism accurately or realistically, virtually every reader should come away troubled by the encounter with racism he/she has produced. You can’t tell students about the history of lynchings in the south or describe the racially motivated atrocities of the Holocaust without also describing in some detail the statements racists made to justify these actions. There’s no way a teenager that lacks any background in the subject can begin to understand why people were being hung from trees across the south or fed into gas chambers in Europe without the accompanying description of the worldview that made those kinds of actions possible. While I certainly agree we should include more African American authors in our classrooms, to the extent these authors tackle racism honestly no one is going to be walking out of that classroom feeling their work was all pleasantry and entertainment. If anything, African American authors are likely to be more graphic in their descriptions of the treatment of their people than a white author would be.
So the issue isn’t Twain or Lee, or even the N-word. These are just the faces and symbols of a larger debate. The issue is the desire to have a literary encounter with racism that doesn’t trouble students by excluding from the curriculum any description of racism that includes the offensive conduct and words that are inherently a part of it. This was, in so many words, the reason given for their decision by the Duluth School District. The trouble in Duluth and a few other places is the belief that ignoring the ugly reality of racism or particular words forever linked to America’s racist history will somehow make racism magically go away. It won’t.
You’ve never answered my direct challenge — made two or three times now, including in the original post — to describe how an artist can depict racism accurately and not include the offensive words and conduct of racists to at least some extent. At this point I have to conclude that’s because you can’t think of a way to do it. That’s okay though, because you’re in good company. Neither could Mark Twain or Harper Lee.
As for whether or not the School District discussed this decision with African Americans on their staff, maybe. They certainly have made no effort to say they did in any of the explanations for this move that I read while preparing my commentary. Therefore, I must remain agnostic on that question. Any speculation one way or the other would be irresponsible given there is a complete absence of evidence to support the conclusion they either did or didn’t. Regardless, they represent the community. Even making this decision behind closed doors in consultation with African American staff does not qualify as reaching out to the African American community for their views. It’s merely using your minority staff as unelected representatives of their community while simultaneously avoiding having to reach out to parents, teachers or students from any community, minority or otherwise, to ask what they think. A few African Americans on your staff do not count as a good faith effort to hear the concerns of either the community at large or the African American community in particular. They certainly don’t count as a representative sample of the entire community. And I say unelected staff because a quick Google search reveals the school board in Duluth to be made up entirely of white people.