Discomfort: Minnesota School District Censors Classic Literature

From a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that 

A school district in Minnesota has pulled To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum, arguing that the classic novels’ use of racial slurs risked students being “humiliated or marginalised”.

The article noted that there had been no specific complaints raised from students (or, evidently, their parents) about the classic titles, but the school district was concerned that their use “created an uncomfortable atmosphere” in the classroom.

Discomfort is the whole point.

It is the role of quality literature to make readers uncomfortable. For that matter, the discomfort produced by focusing on a new or different perspective, or uncovering a truth that has been avoided, is what makes all the arts valuable windows into the human condition.

Afflicting the comfortable requires wrestling with unlovely aspects of our common life that most of us would rather not address or even acknowledge.

I was disappointed to read that the president of the local NAACP  applauded the decision.

The Duluth move was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with president of the local chapter Stephan Witherspoon saying the books were “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years”.

“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” he said. “Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them.”

Distaste for the language is understandable, but efforts to suppress certain words are what give those words their power. Looking honestly at the ugliness of racism–without efforts to convey it in a more “abstract” or “polite” fashion–is intended to produce discomfort. The immediacy of the assault on our contemporary sensibilities–within the context of profoundly anti-racist storytelling–is educational in a way that less offensive formulations that distance the reader from the reality of the ugliness is not.

That point was made by National Coalition Against Censorship.

While the NCAC said it was “understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students,” the anti-censorship organisation argued that “the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom.

“On the contrary, the classroom is where the history, use and destructiveness of this language should be examined and discussed. It is there that the books’ complexities can be contextualised and their anti-racist message can be understood,” it said. “Rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of colour.”

Using these books in the classroom, where teachers can lead a discussion about why these words are so offensive, and why the attitudes they convey have been so destructive to our country, is far better than banishing them to an “optional reading list,” where students will read them without the historical context and explanation that classroom discussion can provide.

This effort to shield students from material deemed “uncomfortable” is not unlike efforts a few years ago (I believe in Oklahoma) to eliminate incidents from the history curriculum that showed the United States in an unfavorable light.

You don’t produce patriots by lying to students about their country’s past, and you don’t produce inclusive, anti-racist citizens by pretending that racists used nicer language.


[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on February 19, 2018]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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