In these censorious times, made even more censorious by liberals’ counter-reaction to Trump (his election heightened fears by Leftists of more “Islamophobia” and racism), we can expect to see even more calls for bowdlerizing books or removing them from libraries. This is the case with two wonderful books—To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberrry Finn—in some schools in Virginia. As the Guardian reports, parental complaints have led to both books being removed from school libraries.
Harper Lee and Mark Twain’s literary classics were removed from classrooms in Accomack County, in Virginia after a formal complaint was made by the mother of a biracial teenager. At the centre of the complaint was the use of the N-word, which appears frequently in both titles.
The woman who made the complaint said her son struggled to read the racist language, telling the Accomack County public schools board: “There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that.” The challenge also appears to be motivated by the current political landscape in the US, as the mother told the board: “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”
. . . . As a committee has yet to discuss the future of the books, a permanent ban has not yet been placed on the two books. However, they have already been removed from classrooms in the district, a move the National Coalition Against Censorship described as “particularly egregious”. The NCAC slammed the action in a post on its Kids Right To Read website, writing: “By avoiding discussion of controversial issues such as racism, schools do a great disservice to their students.”
The worst thing we can do in a time of increasing conservatism is to abandon our liberal values. And, in fact, neither of these books are racist. In both cases they express racism of time and place, but that is simply an accurate depiction of American attitudes at the time. Huck Finn was raised in a racist milieu, and absorbed some of that, but as the novel unwinds he becomes more sympathetic to Jim and even expresses opposition to slavery and fealty to Jim, the former slave. The the Harper Lee novel is explicitly antiracist, with Atticus Finch defending a black man unjustly accused of rape, and Atticus’s daughter Scout observing the trial from the “colored section”. It is a moving novel and and a wonderful movie.
To deprive children of these books because they contain expression of racism, including the hot-button word “nigger”, is to deprive them of not only a knowledge of American history, but of empathic human emotions and the idea that a man is a man, whether black or white. It scares me that this kind of censorship might increase simply because Donald Trump appeals to bigots.
We liberals shouldn’t change our values because of unfounded charges of bigotry. (As progressive, of course, we’re conditioned to hate racism, and to imagine ourselves as racists is about the worst thing we could think.) This change happens when we retreat from confronting the homophobia and misogyny of Islam, and it happens when we censor books because they depict an unpleasant but realistic history of America. For that deprives children, both black and white, of their heritage. And seriously, kids are tougher than you think.
UPDATE: At 1 pm today EST the National Coalition against Censorship hosted a reddit discussion of the banning of these books in Virginia. Sadly, there wasn’t much discussion, and the live bit ended at 2:30 EST. But the NCAC did do its bit:
NCAC will explain the importance of reading these classic novels; each book enables readers to gain a historical understanding of race relations in America and invites them to examine race in the present day. Although discomforting to some, the racial slurs are realistically depict American history and should be addressed under the guidance of a teacher. By avoiding discussion of controversial issues such as racism, schools do a great disservice to their students.