I’ve been ignoring it because my original article was about the Duluth, Minnesota School District’s decision to stop teaching two books that they had received not a single parental complaint about. They cited sensitivity, but no African Americans had indicated they had a problem with these books.
That said, you’re ignoring the issue I raised in my original article. If an author writes a book in which racism is a central theme, how is he or she supposed to depict the racist characters in their book? Racists use the “N-word.” In fact, every time we say “N-word” we’re really saying “nigger” because that’s what the N-word is. We think it every time we refer to it euphemistically, whether we’re vocalizing it or not. Regardless, you can’t have a character in a book or short story who is a member of the KKK running around calling African Americans “filthy N-word”. That’s not how racists talk about African Americans. So how is an artist supposed to depict racism or racists without touching a nerve? And how is it not racist to assume African Americans can’t understand the context when a racist is depicted realistically in a piece of fiction, especially a piece of fiction that doesn’t exactly make racists look very good? I, for one, don’t believe African Americans need to be protected from pieces of art that depict racists (or anything else) accurately. Let’s stop underestimating their capacity to cope with controversy in the classroom. That’s just engaging in the racism of low expectations.
Now a couple of points need to be made here. First, I’m not opposed to involving African Americans or other minorities in any discussion of racism, how certain words make them feel, or any other aspect of their lives. I’m absolutely for it. But we can’t have a discussion about how certain words or deeds make them feel if no one can say the words or mentions the deeds. I have yet to hear an example of a teaching moment involving racism that didn’t involve some discomfort for all concerned.
Second, not every African American supports removing books from the curriculum that use particular language in a particular context. In fact, I haven’t even seen any evidence most of them do. You’re assuming African Americans are a monolithic group and that they all feel the same way about the works of Mark Twain, Harper Lee, or other authors that included racist characters in their stories. As I point out above, none of them had asked for these books to be removed from the curriculum in Duluth.
Third, EVERY piece of great literature that isn’t contemporary contains some outdated ideas and language that is inappropriate. But if we’re doing a good job of teaching the historical context, we have every reason to believe that students of every background are more than up to the task of dealing with it intelligently and maturely. Why would you suggest otherwise?
In conclusion, I’m not opposed to replacing Twain or Lee as authors used specifically to foster discussions of racism (a point I believe I also made in the original article, at least implicitly if not explicitly). If other authors/titles are better suited for the task, then by all means let’s use them. However, the Duluth School District did not say they were removing these texts from the curriculum because better texts were available. They simply cited a need to be sensitive preemptively, in anticipation of complaints about these authors that had not yet been made. Regardless, any work of 19th century or early to mid 20th century literature that touches upon race will lack the kind of sensitivity you and a few others are apparently seeking. Are we to drop all literature that accurately depicts the language and attitudes of the time, or should we use these works as a springboard for a discussion of the cultural/historical context and to examine how far we’ve come?
Just to be clear, I don’t think Twain and Lee should be read because they use the “N-word”. Nor do I think Twain and Lee are the only authors students should be reading. I just don’t think their use of the offending word, given the context in which these authors used it, is reason to stop allowing teachers to use their works in the classroom if they choose. Show me a piece of literature that doesn’t contain conflict, controversy, and at least a few references someone might find offensive and I’ll show you a book that no one wants to read.