Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that. Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.
In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live. Only that’s not strictly accurate. The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere. Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.
Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.
This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota. The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.
“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.
Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”
I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced. The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity. But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.
Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs. Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive. Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.
I get the distinction. Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would. But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature. They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land. They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.
Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them. But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history? Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?
Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors. Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment. But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them. What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.
So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper. Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story. Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?