Why Are Harper Lee and Mark Twain Being Pulled From Minnesota Classrooms?

The Duluth School District in Minnesota has decided to remove two standard components of the English curriculum, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, from its program, citing the use of racial slurs which makes some students feel “humiliated or marginalized.

Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, said there were plenty of other options for books that teach the same lessons as these two classics, but don’t contain racial slurs.

The district, which counts over 20 schools, announced that it plans to keep those two novels in their libraries but will remove them from ninth- and eleventh-grade classes in the upcoming school year.

According to the Bemidji Pioneer, there was no specific recent complaint that led to this decision, but rather several complaints that have surfaced over a number of years.

Both novels are among the most banned or challenged books from 2001 to 2009, because of their depiction of characters who regularly use racist language, including the n-word. Yet both are important because they bring to life racial injustice in Alabama and slavery in pre-Civil War America, and serve as anti-racist texts precisely because of their historically accurate language and characters.

As a former English teacher, I have initiated many curriculum changes. At the first high school where I taught in California, I was appalled that the entire book list for American literature was made up of dead white males; there was not a single woman or person of any ethnicity other than Caucasian.

My first step was to introduce Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club; the second was to add Richard Wright to the curriculum, and slowly perspectives began to widen.

Reviewing the curriculum and updating as necessary is important, but it is wrong to remove books because they make students feel uncomfortable. There is no denying they are difficult novels to teach, but that doesn’t mean they should be banned. The classroom is where the history and use of this racist language should be examined and discussed.

The American Library Association (ALA) has been tracking book challenges since 1990. In 2016, there were 323 reported attempts to ban books in schools and libraries, up from 275 the year before. However, only about 10 percent of those challenges resulted in the removal of a book from school or library.

The majority of these challenges come from parents of school-age children (42 percent), followed by library patrons (31 percent) and a school board or administration (10 percent).

Parents do already have the right to have their children opt out of a book but that doesn’t mean they have the right to decide that no child should read this book. The National Coalition against Censorship explains that “Even books or materials that many find ‘objectionable’ may have educational value, and the decision about what to use in the classroom should be based on professional standards, not individual preferences.”

The Coalition has come out strongly against the decision by the Duluth school district.

“The classroom is where the history, use and destructiveness of this language should be examined and discussed,” the organization said in a statement. “It is there that the books’ complexities can be contextualized and their anti-racist message can be understood. Rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of color.”

The key here is the presence of the teacher, who needs to guide students in their understanding of racial slurs, or whatever the topic is, and lead them forward in a skillful way. And that is not easy. Teenagers are extremely sensitive and need the help of knowledgeable adults to encourage them to think through what their true beliefs are and to lead discussions that are honest and show empathy for all students.

The Duluth school district apparently feels that the novels by Lee and Twain are “hurtful.” Other books that are frequently challenged are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

But students need to face those feelings in the safety of a classroom. Banning these books deprives our young people of cultural and historical knowledge, as well as many differing points of view.

 

Photo Credit: By Moni3 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

122 comments

Marie W
Marie Wabout a month ago

Thanks for sharing.

SEND
Tara W
Tara W7 months ago

Isn't the message of "... mockingbird" that prejudice can be overcome by education and empathy and that everyperson is worthy of being treated with dignity? Seems like a relevant opening for discussion in this day and age...

SEND
Tara W
Tara W7 months ago

Most of North/Central/South America's history post-contact is offensive. Better to talk about it than to ban it.

SEND
Arlene C
Arlene C7 months ago

MERCI JUDY

SEND
Angela J
Angela J7 months ago

Thanks

SEND
Colin C
Colin Clauscen7 months ago

I think a child of 14 or 15 should be able to read and study most novels, especially good literature by authors such as Harper Lee and Steinbeck.

SEND
Mark T
Mark T7 months ago

Ty.

SEND
Freya H
Freya H7 months ago

Geez, that's how people talked back in the day! "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" both take place when racial slurs were acceptable. Robert P does have a point - it may not be so much political correctness run amok as a symptom of creeping fascism.

SEND
Jaime J
Jaime J7 months ago

Thank you

SEND
Janis K
Janis K7 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

SEND