American Culture

N-bombs in American cultural treasures

pAK004-boomHuck Finn and Harper Lee in the crosshairs

Fox reports (yeah, yeah, I know): Minnesota school district removes To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from required reading due to n-word.

“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” Witherspoon said.

What is this same thing we’re talking about? Teaching to a standardized curriculum such that Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are merely lit-widgets for drumming in reading comprehension or ticking off checkboxes on a lesson planning worksheet? Because that’s not the same thing I’m thinking of. I’m thinking Mark Twain did what only Mark Twain could have accomplished. I’m thinking Harper Lee accomplished what only Harper Lee could have accomplished.

And I’m thinking that part of the purpose of exposing our youth to the fine heritage of American literature is part of a well-rounded, dare I say it in its proper context, liberal education, the kind of education that expands horizons and challenges students to think.

Is it possible that Twain explores differing attitudes to race in the South? Could it be that, in spite of calling dear Jim a darkie, the bigger story is that the kids have an innocence about race we’re not accustomed to attributing to white Southerners? Could it be that the tale, in spite of word usage that is insensitive by today’s standards, puts the lie to any kind of simplistic thinking that simply dismisses all white Southerners as vicious, murderous anti-black racists? Why, could it even be possible that Twain may have even communicated a great many other things in his work?

And Harper Lee? Really? Doesn’t striking her work from required reading on the grounds of hurtful, racist word usage miss the obviously bigger and more topical point that the work itself, as it stands, is singularly monolithic in its opposition to racism?

And what’s this crap about better literature? We’re to take the word of some simpleton whose thought processes run along one flat, institutionalized and sterilized dimension as to what good, better, and great literature is? I think not.

Here’s an idea. Instead of yanking American cultural treasures out of the curriculum, how about pressuring the publishers of those cultural treasures to produce YA editions that strike out the offensive word and include a discussion of that choice in a foreword? If those editions already exist, I think I might be excused for not knowing of them. I’m not in charge of curriculum development, after all. But if they do exist, would someone please kindly let this cultural censor know?

2 replies »

  1. I have always marveled at people who were so thick they imagined you could depict degradation without, you know, depicting degradation. It’s a short step from here to saying since Shakespeare depicted Othello murdering Desdemona it meant he was advocating killing your wife.

    I understand opposition to gratuitous use of derogatory terms, but if we whitewash history, so to speak, we empower racists in the present day.