On February 8 I reported that the Duluth (Minnesota) public schools had removed two classic books from their syllabus: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. The reason, as you can guess, is that they contained the “n-word”: as the Minnesota Star-Tribune reported:
“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”
Cary said the decision, made as a group by district leaders and leaders in Duluth’s secondary schools, came after years of concerns shared by parents, students and community groups. The change was announced to district staff members late last week.
Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, called the move “long overdue.”
The literature has “oppressive language for our kids” Witherspoon said, and school should be an environment where children of color are learning equally. There are other novels with similar messages that can be taught, he said.
“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”
To be sure, the schools were still leaving the books in the school library, just in case kids want to trigger themselves. And, as I wrote at the time, there are ways to teach this sensitively, and of course African-American kids are going to hear that word many times growing up, and will know what it means. The two books, in fact, are not oppressive but anti-racist, but use the language common among racist Southerners at the time.
Note that one of the objections to the books being used was from the NAACP, an abbreviation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Those last two words, of course, are also taboo, as they are considered more offensive than “blacks” or “African Americans,” though not as offensive as “nigger” (I’m not using the “n-word” euphemism here, as everybody reads the offensive word into it.) Nobody calls African Americans “colored people” these days. If the NAACP is serious, it should change its name. The reason they don’t, of course, is that “colored people” was respectable at the time among blacks, and they keep it as a sign of history. But the historical context is also the same justification for teaching the “triggering” word in the two banned books.
This kind of school censorship repels me, and so I wrote to Dr. Michael Cary, Director of Curriculum and Instruction of the Duluth Public Schools. I also emailed the same letter, individually, to all seven members of the Duluth School Board. Here it is:
Dear Mr./Ms. X,
I’d like to register a protest against your school board’s removal of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the curriculum on the grounds that they contain a single word that is considered offensive. This is censorship, pure and simple, and censorship based on the principle that a book that contains any material that people find offensive should be removed from the curriculum. But nearly any important book will offend someone, and, as you know, both of these books are not only important, but anti-racist.
To say that there are other books that convey the same message implies that ideology is what’s important for the students, and that books with the same ideology are interchangeable. But that’s not true. Both of these books have substantial literary merit: Hemingway deemed “Huck Finn” as the fountainhead of American literature, and “Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize. There are no other books like them.
I’m sure your students are mature enough, and your teachers capable enough, to teach these important books with care and sensitivity. To deprive students of reading them as part of the curriculum is to diminish their cultural education.
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago
Now usually I get some kind of response or non-response defending the censorship, but up to now I’ve heard exactly nothing. Apparently the books are still out of the curriculum. This morning, however, I got a snotty email from one member of the school board, who had the temerity to address me by my first name and then to ask me three questions. I’ll leave out the name as it’s not important:
A few questions:
1) Where did you get your information from?
2) Why do you think the decision was made? Who made it? What’s the story behind it?
3) What do you know about our community, our teachers, and our students?
That’s the complete content of the email.
My information, of course, came from the newspapers, and was widely available. As the paper reported, the decision was made by “a group by district leaders and leaders in Duluth’s secondary schools”. I presume that includes members of the Duluth School Board, but even if it doesn’t, they didn’t have to bow to the pressure. Finally, the last question really is dumb: the writer assumes that I have to know all about the community, teachers, and students to justify my criticism of the censorship. But every word I wrote goes for every school that would teach but then censor the books. The implication, of course, is that the community was riled up, contained people who saw the word “nigger” as triggering, offensive, oppressive, and upsetting, even when contained in classic works of literature, and that Duluth teachers are unable to teach those two books in a way that could defuse any offense—or even use it as a teaching moment. Are they really that incompetent?
Regardless, this is not only a non-response (just a lot of snarky questions), but speaks poorly of the Duluth School Board. So, let them censor what the kids will see, for, after all, the School Boards knows hate speech when they see it. I hope that the Streisand Effect operates here, and the children seek out and read those two books.
Meanwhile, the Duluth School Board can take a hike.
UPDATE: There’s a comment by reader “Worm” below that suggests he/she is the school board member who wrote me the snarky response. I can’t verify that, because it’s anonymous, but if it’s true, this person should not be on a school board!