Monday, January 19, 2009

Racism and the Classroom

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Tomorrow Barack Obama officially becomes president. And one teacher in Portland wants to cut books from the curriculum because they use the n-word.

Which books? Oh right. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.

It's not the first time either of these books have been changed, for various reasons. But this is what English teacher John Foley wrote a guest column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms...Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the 'N-word' repeatedly need to go."

Apparently, in teaching Huck Finn, Foley consistently runs into the issue of the n-word and how it makes his students--largely white but occasionally black as well--feel:

"With few exceptions, all the black students in my classes over the years have appeared very uncomfortable when I've discussed these matters at the beginning of the unit. And I never want to rationalize 'Huck Finn' to an angry African American mom again as long as I breathe."

That's totally understandable. I'm sure I wouldn't like to teach that part of the curriculum, either. And frankly, I'm not a huge Huck Finn fan. The ending is ridiculous and basically counteracts all the anti-racism revelations Huck experiences early on. But the issue here is largely the use of the n-word, which is, without a doubt, one of the most hurtful and controversial terms in the English language. No matter how uncomfortable it makes people feel, you can't pretend it doesn't exist. Teens hear the word in songs, in comic shows, on tv, everywhere. It's not like they don't know it. I think it would actually be detrimental to allow teens to hear the n-word in some song and not discuss it in relationship to literature that deals with racism.

Especially To Kill a Mockingbird. I thought Foley wasn't an idiot until:

"The character Tom Robinson is very noble, he said, "but again, he's uneducated, inarticulate. I was just thinking, for students here in Washington anyway, wouldn't 'Snow Falling on Cedars' be just as valuable?""

Oddly enough, I read both books in high school. What do I remember about Snow Falling on Cedars? The basic historical context. The novel itself didn't really impress me. Also, it's about the Japanese-American experience. Is he going to cut out the Africian-American experience entirely from his curriculum? And on top of that, I hate the idea that Tom Robinson is "uneducated, inarticulate." Is he a black man in the South in the 1930's, not allowed to have an education? Of course. But that doesn't mean he's inarticulate. Lee specifically compares him and his family to the Ewells, white and uneducated and cruel and racist. The Robinsons may not speak with the best of the English language, but Tom never comes across as uneducated and inarticulate. He's one of the most sensitive, thoughtful characters in the book. His experience is absolutely tragic, and I think American teens would lose so much by not having this book in their high schools.

Basically, I think Foley wants to pretend that problems don't exist. Should teachers constantly reassess the books their students are reading? Of course. New classics come along all the time. (For example, I think the Octavian Nothing books could do very well on a high school reading list, especially when the topic is racism.) But to get rid of To Kill a Mockingbird because you don't like talking about one word? Cowardly, I'd say. We need to confront these issues that are still present in our society. That's the only way we'll ever get passed them.


H. Lewis Smith said...


lizwetzel said...

The funny thing is he wants to replace Twain with Snow Cedar blah blah? The Japanese car industry pays AMREN to improve the Japanese image. How much was Foley paid? The Japanese has tried again and again to be the "leader" among Asian Americans, never mind that they killed, raped and tortured Chinese, Koreans And Filipinos. 110,000 Japanese interned but werent killed AGAINST millions of other ASIANS mutilated, killed, raped and tortured.

AND JAPAN thinks they are victims?