Mother’s concern of ‘divided nation’ forces school to pull classic books
ACCOMAC, Va. (WAVY) —Two classic American novels have been temporarily pulled from book shelves in Accomack County Public Schools.
Superintendent Warren Holland confirmed to 10 On Your Side that a parent filed a complaint about “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
POLL: Should Accomack County Public Schools ban “To Kill A Mockingbird” & Huck Finn? The novels are currently suspended due to racial slurs.
— Katie Collett (@KatieCollettTV) December 1, 2016
I’ve come pretty far on this topic over the years.
I used to be in the camp that Huckleberry Finn is a classic work mocking slavery and racism—and it is. But being racially progressive in the late-19th Century is one thing; being so for the 21 Century is another. Mark Twain still was laughing in cheap ways at the way black Americans spoke and how they were ignorant even while, in general, he was arguing for the humanity of all people.
If you really wanted to learn about slavery in the 19th Century, you could teach ‘The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas‘ or ‘12 Years A Slave‘ by Solomon Northup, and that does so without the snickering of reading aloud numerous sections of ‘Nigger Jim’ and a white author’s attempts at reproducing ebonics.
To Kill a Mockingbird is nearer to us, so it feels better, but Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison isn’t a worse book to teach or read. If you’re a black student, the only black characters in Mockingbird have no agency and do nothing but suffer the effects of racism. For a book about Jim Crow, written by a white author, it’s very good. But as the essentially first draft of the book (Go Set A Watchmen) showed, that outlook is not perfect.
People defend the historicity of racism and racist epithets as an excuse to continue to use them casually in modern fiction, too. You could have a spaceship and superpowers, individual protagonists will be far more progressive than their era in order for the audience to root for them, but you’ll still hear racist language from antagonists and background characters used under the banner of ‘authenticity’.
I like Huckleberry Finn a lot; if you’re an adult interested in the time, it should be read in full. But if you’re a middle schooler or high schooler, I’d say it’s not a necessity or something that should be read unabridged.
The last chapters Twain wrote earlier in his process when he was in happier times, and his best stuff was in the middle when he was more pessimistic, but he couldn’t let go of the end, so the seams their show. ‘The rest is just cheating’ and so forth. (Or maybe not.)
Ultimately, a canon isn’t just what people have read in the past but reflects what people want to consider important in the present. It’s good to teach different readings of classic texts and put them into different contexts based on modern needs, but it’s better to find new things in the past worthy of being studied.