Educators in Duluth, Minnesota recently decided to remove two American classics from the curriculum. At some point, of course, every great book will be replaced by a more recent work of equal or greater stature. There’s only so much time in a school year and students can’t be expected to read every book worthy of their attention before leaving high school.
But the reasons given in this case have nothing to do with a particular teacher’s literary preferences or the fact that other pieces of literature tackle the touchy topic of racism better. It’s the same reason we read every year or so when some misguided educational institution decides its students’ feelings are more important than their education: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird use “racial slurs.”
Whenever I read some school district or another has decided that Mark Twain, Harper Lee, or another author of their caliber is no longer going to be read and discussed in the classroom because students risk being “humiliated or marginalized,” I feel like the works of these literary giants are being placed in the same category as Hitler’s Mein Kampf or William Luther Pierce’s The Turner Diaries. Regardless, the only message young students unfamiliar with either Twain or Lee are likely to hear in these instances is that they were racists when in fact their message was anything but.
The United States is never going to put racism in the rearview mirror by removing every piece of literature from the curriculum that frankly addresses racism or realistically depicts bigots, misleading students about the reason these works contain some of the language they do in the process. Neither Mark Twain or Harper Lee used racial slurs to describe anyone, but some of their characters did. These fictional personas were using language that accurately reflected the place, time, and personal beliefs of real people. By putting the real words people used into the mouths of their characters Twain and Lee were holding a mirror up to every reader, softening the hearts of millions of people raised within a culture of systemic racism in the process.
Those behind the decision in Duluth, and in other school districts where similar decisions have been made for similar reasons, need to explain how artists are supposed to depict bigotry without disturbing their supposedly fragile and apparently emotionally stunted students. What do these “educators” think the consequences might be for an author who refuses to confront frankly the vulgar words and deeds of Nazi concentration camp guards marching Jews into the gas chamber or that casts a southern lynch mob in the gentlest possible light to spare his or her readers’ feelings? What, pray tell, will the NAACP have to say about such an author’s work? What will the consequences be for a society that raises their youth on such pablum?
Bigotry is vile. Any writer of either fiction or non-fiction offering up visions of slave owners, death camp commandants, or white nationalists marching through contemporary city streets speaking respectfully about the targets of their hatred for any reason, other than perhaps to lull people into a false sense of complacency, is lying to us. Twain and Lee were not liars.
Racism is supposed to upset us. The words coming out of the mouths of bigots should disturb us. We want our children coming home from school unsettled after they learn about it. Those attempting to hide them from ugly truths about our racist past (and present) may sometimes have good intentions, but the effect of their actions will only be an even worse case of historical amnesia than we’re already suffering from. With so much ignorance of our past actively being promoted by ideologues and well meaning “educators” alike, we shouldn’t be surprised when false equivalencies like “[there are] some very fine people on both sides” are embraced by so many of our fellow citizens. If Duluth is any indication, we can expect even more future voters to embrace that kind of thinking.
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