We have to grade the past on a curve but not the present

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.”


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.

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adavidjohnson

A David Johnson, of many. The (poorly) recovering journalist of West Texas extraction one.

2 thoughts on “We have to grade the past on a curve but not the present”

  1. As long as the books aren’t banned, fair enough. But abridging ‘Huck Finn’ is like abridging ‘Huck Finn.’
    Incidentally, I taught ‘Mockingbird’ and decided to say nigger when I was reading aloud in class. There was initial shock, but even freshmen got used to it. Everyone knows what you mean when you say n-word.

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  2. I believe you that students got used to it because repetition has a way of doing that to people. And again, there’s significant literary merit happening there.

    But if there were a character of a radical, social justice warrior novel called ‘White Jim the Shrivel-Dicked Virgin Cuck’, I would expect for something about the repeated references to that character and his actions to leak out of the boundaries of the classroom itself and increase or focus on nerdy white guys in the school who already had some prejudicial mockery aimed against them.

    And no matter how magnificently crafted and immaculate the scansion, a poem about ‘The Creepy & Pathetic Mouth-Breathing Pedophile English Teacher’ would not stop most students from mockingly identifying the character with someone who resembled that character only in profession.

    I use those unwieldy and invented phrases because there’s nothing historically comparable for white Americans to the degradation and implied violence of ‘nigger’. I’ve been reading about the failed Civil Rights measures of the 1950s and early ’60s focused on such controversial subject matter as anti-lynching legislation and the right to register and vote as a black American. In addition to the loftier abstract appeals to states’ rights and stalwart defense against socialism there’s occasionally the communications where the veil drops and it’s about keeping the niggers in their place so whites don’t lose their pre-eminence and have to watch their pale daughters marry black animals.

    I think it’d be really unpleasant to go to school if an SJW teacher were having lessons analyzing the symbolism of White Jim the Shrivel-Dicked White Cuck, and to my knowledge, hundreds of people have not been hanged or drowned while being jeered with ‘Shrivel-Dicked White Cuck.’

    There will come a day when the term is as neutral and divorced of emotion as ‘I bite my thumb at thee’ or ‘ churl’. But we’re not there yet, and we already consume only excerpts of great works of literature like the Iliad or Beowulf.

    To me, Huckleberry Finn (and To Kill A Mockingbird) deserve to be read, but I wouldn’t say everything about them deserve to be taught even if in the classroom people stop gasping at some point.

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