“Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” once again censored in public schools

This battle will never end.

According to the Minneapolis (Minnesota) Star Tribune, two of the usual targets of school censorship have now been removed from the curriculum at public schools in Duluth, Minnesota. Yep, you guessed it: they’re The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, and you know why they’re banned: they contain the “n-word”. And that word makes students “uncomfortable”.  But as a sop to those who think those books are essential reading for students—like me—the school district is being magnanimous and will leave the books in the school library for “optional reading”.

As the paper reports:

“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”

Cary said the decision, made as a group by district leaders and leaders in Duluth’s secondary schools, came after years of concerns shared by parents, students and community groups. The change was announced to district staff members late last week.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, called the move “long overdue.”

The literature has “oppressive language for our kids” Witherspoon said, and school should be an environment where children of color are learning equally. There are other novels with similar messages that can be taught, he said.

“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”

If Witherspoon thinks that reading these books, complete with the ‘N’ word, will promote racism, he’s off the rails. Those books are anti-racist, and should promote racial harmony.

With sensitive teaching, of course, the issue of The Word can be handled, and it’s not like kids don’t know that word.  While I can understand why the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) would register an objection, it’s not the school’s duty to bow before anybody that is offended.  While other books can be anti-racist, they can’t replace these two in terms of their beauty and their stories.

The censors here imply that the purpose of books is to push an ideological message, and books with the same message are interchangeable. But that’s not the case: Huck Finn is a bellwether of American literature; as Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn. It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” And Mockingbird is a lovely classic of 20th century American literature, one that won a Pulitzer Prize. It is profoundly anti-racist, but of course the ending is sad and messy, as is life itself. So, too, is Huck Finn, in which a boy who originally shared the bigotry of his milieu gradually becomes convinced of a slave’s humanity.

By all means supplement these readings with other books: books by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou. And why not writers of other ethnicities and cultures—and other social classes? (How about The Grapes of Wrath?) The school district is treating the children as if they’re infants, unable to even hear a single racial slur secondhand. I have more faith in the kids and their teachers, and think that depriving children of these two wonderful books is to rip out a piece of their cultural education.

If you want to express your opinion, Michael Cary’s work email and phone number are publicly available on the schools’ website here, but I’ll give just the email address. I’ve written him protesting the censorship of these books, for it is indeed censorship.

UPDATE: And the emails of all seven members of the school board are here. I’ve now written each of them, too.

Dr. Michael Cary
Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Duluth Public Schools
michael.cary@isd709.org

Here’s what I sent him:

Dear Dr. Cary,

I’d like to register a protest against your school board’s removal of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from the curriculum on the grounds that they contain a single word that is considered offensive. This is censorship, pure and simple, and censorship based on the principle that a book that contains any material that people find offensive should be removed from the curriculum. But nearly any important book will offend someone, and, as you know, both of these books are not only important, but anti-racist.

To say that there are other books that convey the same message implies that ideology is what’s important for the students, and that books with the same ideology are interchangeable. But that’s not true. Both of these books have substantial literary merit: Hemingway deemed “Huck Finn” as the fountainhead of American literature, and “Mockingbird” won a Pulitzer Prize. There are no other books like them.

I’m sure your students are mature enough, and your teachers capable enough, to teach these important books with care and sensitivity. To deprive students of reading them as part of the curriculum is to diminish their cultural education.

Yours sincerely,
Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago

h/t: Barry

44 Comments

  1. Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The basic rule of muscle training is that the muscle must be stressed, that is made uncomfortable, by a physical demand, such as moving a weight. If this stress is large enough and repeated enough, the muscles involved will grow stronger. There is minor damage to the muscle during this cycle which gets repaired upon rest.

    Nature is replete with examples in which if we are always fucking comfortable, nothing grows! I though the whole purpose of an education was to stimulate curiosity and learning by gentle and respectful prodding. How are the works of the U.S.’s greatest author anything but uncomfortable. If they had made everyone comfortable, he would have been forgotten a long time ago.

    Idiots!

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I can’t figure out if this is the result of the last generation of snowflakes just raising another one or if this generation of censors is just stupid. Maybe someone will take this into court and see if free speech means anything.

    Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expect to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

    • drew
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s stupid to remove these books.

      That being said, I’m not certain how free speech would apply in this situation. There’s nothing barring the students, nor anyone else, from reading the books. The school hasn’t banned them, it’s simply removed them from the curriculum.

      Even if the school does end up removing them from the library it still doesn’t rise to the level of a free speech issue unless and until it actually bans them from the school. Though even then, there is some leeway given to non-college level schools in controlling “disruptive” elements.

      Problematic definitely, just not sure it rises to the level that a legal challenge would be productive or have a chance to survive a dismissal hearing.

      • Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I called it a censorship issue, not a free speech issue. Those books have no RIGHT to be in the curriculum, but once they’re there, taking them out because some people object is censorship, pure and simple. Putting them in the library means that most students who would have read them when they were required won’t read them.

        And who on earth called for a legal challenge? Certainly not I! I called for pushback, which is what I gave.

        • drew
          Posted February 8, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          Sorry PCC,

          I was responding to Randall Schenck, not directly to your piece.

          He mentioned both taking the issue to court and free speech.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        Well, I am not a lawyer so I would leave it to them. In most all cases of first amendment violations it takes someone affected to bring suit, whether we are talking about religion or free speech or just plan censorship. You cannot determine the outcome of something that has not been challenged yet, any more than I.

  3. Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    How about using these texts to demonstrate history and encourage change. Books refer to a historical context and most will containsoething that offends someone.

    • Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      But that’s exactly how these books should be taught–at least to demonstrate history. Once that’s done, encouraging change necessarily follows, but high school English classes are not the place to inculcate the students with a particular ideology.

      • Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Agree with you completely – we should learn from the past – not pretend it didn’t exist

    • DrBrydon
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure demonstrating change is part of the narrative they want. With people asserting that being white is per se racist, showing that things have actually improved might wind up causing people to be begin to evaluate how bad things actually are.

      • Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        I wrote an essay on this topic and failed – when I protested my mark they conceded that I did have a valid point

  4. glen1davidson
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Slavery’s rather offensive.

    Can’t we just expunge slavery from history? I mean, really. We’re already pretending that people didn’t say “nigger,” aren’t we? We can’t acknowledge what the past was like, after all.

    Glen Davidson

  5. busterggi
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Just once I’d like to see a movement to ban Moby Dick instead. Have you ever read it? If you did then do you remember the chapter ‘On the Whiteness of the Whale’ which is a white supremicist handbook basically? Bloody Nazi whales!

    Besides, I didn’t enjoy the book.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Toni Morrison and other African authors definitely uses the N-word (or as Tim Minchin might say “the ginger anagram” or as I might say “the gingergram” for short.) However, they do so much less prolifically than Twain.

    TM’s most famous novel (which I have read) is “Beloved” and books.google.com lists 13 pages on which it is used. They find it on 7 pages on Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (unread by me) and on 5 pages on “The Color Purple” (read by me).

    Not quite as prolific as the nearly 200 times it is used by Twain, but there you go. It may be the sheer rapid-fire quantity of Twain’s usage of it that is an issue for some.

    I have a modest problem with the fact that in the last quarter of Finn (which all critics regard as inferior to the first 75%), Jim reverts to a bit more or a race stereotype, and while Twain is quite good at making Southern rednecks appear self-destructively stupid, his portrayal of Jim as endearingly childlike has issues of its own. One thing I enjoyed about the musical adaptation of Finn, “Big River” (1985), was its rendition of Jim as far far more shrewd and intelligent that Twain did.

    Hemingway was actually UNimpressed with the final quarter of Huck Finn, and ironically used the gingergram in his accolades. The full quote from Hemingway is

    “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim [caps in original-JLH] is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

    However, every fan of Shakespeare should read Huck Finn for the “Duke’s” delightful mangling of Hamlet’s speech. The Duke and the Earl are two con artists who for a while hang out with Huck and Jim. In some towns they pretend to be tent revival preachers and raise money that way. In other towns, the pretend to be traveling Shakespearean actors who will perform some great scenes from Shakespeare, with whom the locals have apparently little familiarity.

    To any Shakespeare buff, the Duke’s rendition of “To be or not to be” is alone worth the $10 you paid for your book.

    To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
    That makes calamity of so long life;
    For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
    But that the fear of something after death
    Murders the innocent sleep,
    Great nature’s second course,
    And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
    Than fly to others that we know not of.
    There’s the respect must give us pause:
    Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
    For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take,
    In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
    In customary suits of solemn black,
    But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
    Breathes forth contagion on the world,
    And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
    Is sicklied o’er with care,
    And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.
    ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
    But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
    Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
    But get thee to a nunnery- go!

    • busterggi
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      They don’t write ’em like that any more.

    • Ken Phelps
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      The King and the Duke were probably the best learning experience Huck Finn offered me as a child – when I re-read the book many times. The pretentious ignorance of their language came immediately to mind the first time I took a look at the Book of Mormon.

      I was in a motel in Moab, Utah and decided to randomly open the BoM kindly provided. I made it through about half a page and thought “wait a minute, some scamp of a mountain biker has substituted the National Lampoon parody for the real one”. I actually went to the front of the book to check if it was real.

      I see Twain’s writing as a vaccination against BS. By the time you finish Huck Finn, you have met most of the cons you will ever meet in life. After growing up with this cast of characters, Joseph Smith’s writing was a transparent a fraud, as are the modern royalty wannabees rooting through the festering remains of the Republican party.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 8, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        Precisely. You’ve hit the spike on the flattened boss opposite the pointy end. 🙂

  7. nicky
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Great letter, Jerry. I hope they will, but fear they won’t, heed.
    It is pertinent that you point out that these books are anti-racist. Thalk aout shooting yourself in the foot Negro (literally meaning ‘black) and it’s derivative ‘nigger’ were in common use then. What are they trying to do? Change history? Denying our past was openly racist? What purpose does such a denial serve? How did they get to be so puritanical, to the point of wanting to replace great literature with second rate trash?

  8. Posted February 8, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Let me paraphrase Stephan Witherspoon of the NAACP, “Seeing the n-word in print is especially devastating to our young children. We would much rather they learn what it means from other kids and random adults on the street.”

  9. Genotypical
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Ironically, when I was a schoolkid in Bakersfield, CA, the only book I knew of that was banned by our school WAS The Grapes of Wrath Because it made our county, the end point of the main OK to CA migration, look bad….

  10. Taz
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    “Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life.

    Probably every time they listen to music – music they choose.

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    The key element in the Duluth schools decision is exactly the one you state: “The censors here imply that the purpose of books is to push an ideological message, and books with the same message are interchangeable.”

    The current message is the holy sacrament called Diversity. For its worship, all books with the right message are interchangeable; all books with disapproved language are to be hidden away; past history is to be rewritten as needed; and, of course, neither literary standards, nor factual realities of any kind, are to be considered.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    How many times is any type of N word appear in these books?

    To compare:

    Just So Stories : once.

    And the audio book versions either omit it or step around it, never saying it. That’s fine with me, because it’s one instance, and the edits change the story in no way whatsoever.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Bet Atticus made sure Scout & Jem read about Huck & Jim — and that they turned out the better and stronger for it.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      And, I should add, the more understanding of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley for it, too.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    And why not writers of other ethnicities and cultures—and other social classes? (How about The Grapes of Wrath?)

    Grapes is about poor Okies, but Steinbeck himself was of white-bread petit bourgeois stock, until converting to the cause in the Thirties.

  15. Posted February 8, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Some comments:

    1. Censorship of books, subjects and language that make some people uncomfortable has been with us almost forever. Look at the inability of Catholics to read the Bible until they were taught to read and had access to Bibles written in the vernacular. All matters religious had to be interpreted by the priests. Look at the list of books proscribed by the Catholic Church. And, look at the list of censored books in the U.S.

    2. The hard, “uncomfortable” subjects are specifically the ones that should be taught in school. I think the discomfort is more among the teachers and administration than the students.

    3. Large segments of the black community use the word “nigger” among themselves for various purposes. It’s just not all right for
    non-black people to use the word.

  16. Steve Pollard
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Kudos to PCC(E) for such a reasoned, literate and polite letter of protest. I wish the other 99.99% of contributions to the interwebs were as civilised.

    OT: why is the NAACP still called the NAACP? Isn’t the CP bit rather…unfashionable these days?

  17. dabertini
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    The problem with education is the adults and the children end up paying the price.

  18. Jim batterson
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Jerrys note is to staff guy. I recommend ccing to the local school board which is the policy making body. Their contact info is at http://www.isd709.org/district/school-board/contact-the-board

    Recommend sending to chair and student reps at a minimum. If ccing the entire board, i would use individual addresses rather than bulk contact address.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Nice missive, boss.

    I’ma sit right down and write Dr. Cary a little letter myself.

    • Jim batterson
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Please be sure to cc to school board members per my comment 18. They actually discuss the pros and cons and make policy. Staff gives them a recommendation, but the board often needs some outside and independent thinking.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 8, 2018 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

        Will do, Jim. Thx.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s good too, and I’d write myself except I don’t think a letter from a NZer would be welcomed.

      We read Huck Finn at school. It was quite early on though – before high school. I think it was Form 1 (year 7). 1975 for me. I remember we were shocked by the n-word and it prompted a discussion of racism in the US and in general. It was uncomfortable, but it increased our empathy and awareness of the issue. I remember very little of the book, but I do remember bits of that discussion, including an anecdote the teacher told of racism he witnessed.

  20. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Thoughts

    What’s the significance of being on the curriculum (is that the term), compared to merely being in the library

    and related to that

    I remember my teachers apparently picking books they felt important or whatever to discuss in class – and I doubt a “ suit” would’ve approved- there was some counter-culture stuff, maybe electric kook aid acid test, madame bovary….

    much play is there between the curriculum a higher-up concocts and the teachers doing the teaching?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 8, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      HOW much – how was missing.

    • david campbell
      Posted February 9, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      “Officially approved curriculum” affords some legal protection to the teacher if parent or student or (here in Floriduh) any human with a pulse wants to challenge it. Most schools have curriculum committees which must approve all instructional materials used in the classroom that aren’t already approved at the district level. Teachers who use unapproved materials may not receive legal support from the district if challenged by a parent. It’s a litigious world and challenges to content are increasing. Materials in the library are different because students are not required to read/view them. Classroom readings affect grades.
      If the “ban the book” approach doesn’t work some parents will ask to have their children “opt out” of controversial material (evolution, human reproduction, origin of life). If that material is not part of an officially approved syllabus or state standard the teacher may be required to provide an alternative (and we assume) less controversial assignment. If it is the student may be given an alternative assignment but the official content can still be assessed on local and/or state tests.

      These people are like the ostrich in the Flanders and Swann song.
      “You will please excuse,
      but disturbing news,
      I have no wish to know.”

  21. Curt Nelson
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    These books are dangerous but this president will make America great again.

  22. adamsmith1922
    Posted February 8, 2018 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    Yet again denial of free expression and a failure to allow classic books to be part of courses because of the idea that nobody should be offended.

  23. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 9, 2018 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    “The censors here imply that the purpose of books is to push an ideological message, and books with the same message are interchangeable.”

    This would explain some book phenomena, like when cover jackets claim the book has been adopted by schools and communities across the country (I’ll find the exact quote later ). For such books, I find the discussion quickly ranges far and away from the actual story, in the interest of “starting the conversation” – that’s good, to range far and wide in conversation, but the book tends to get set aside I think, begging the question (I think?) what it was chosen for in the first place. Parallels of this view of books with religious texts are hard to ignore.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 9, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      OK here’s the exact wording I was trying to recall – from the inside back flap cover of the R. J. Palacio picture book selection from her Wonder franchise, titled “We’re All Wonders” (italics indicated with _ because I can’t see how to do it) :

      “_Wonder_’s message of kindness and tolerance inspired the “choose kind” movement, which has been adopted by schools and classrooms across the country. _Wonder_ is also being adapted into a major motion picture”

      …(interesting, I hadn’t noticed the use of “adapted” and “adopted” in the consecutive sentences)…

      All I wish to point out here is how books are not just these items on a shelf, but there’s a desire to have a “movement”, and to be “adopted by schools and classrooms”.

      Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird – they can’t provide that.

  24. Posted February 9, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Ugh.

    These books are the sort that *should* be in the curriculum, because they aren’t the sort one should just *read*, but ones to (hopefully) provoke reflection and discussion. “Teachable moment”, people!

  25. Lurker111
    Posted February 9, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I like your letter. I’m glad you can keep a diplomatic demeanor. I’m afraid I could not have gone much further than, “Are you an effing idiot???” were I to write to this educational invertebrate. 😡


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