Students can't utter the N-word in school, but can read it in English class

No one believes the N-word belongs in the classroom. Yet, the racial slur appears in classic American novels routinely taught in high schools today.

Should schools teach "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird" or other works that contain racist language that may make some students uncomfortable or give others tacit approval to use the terms?

That question is being asked in the Accomack County Public Schools in Virginia after a mother complained about "Huck Finn," which uses the N-word 219 times. The woman's biracial son found the language upsetting, prompting her to ask the school board to remove the book. Accomack is now evaluating whether "Huck Finn" ought to be in its schools.

In the audio recording of the Nov. 15 board meeting, the mother tells the board she's pleased with her son's education and his teachers, but troubled over his class reading list, which includes "Huck Finn'' and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

She tells the board:

"I keep hearing, 'This is a classic, This is a classic.'  I understand this is a literature classic, but at some point, I feel that children will not or do not truly get the classic part, the literature part, which I'm not disputing. This is great literature. But there are so many racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can't get past that. And right now, we are a nation divided as it is.

I teach my son he is the best of both worlds and I don't want him to feel otherwise. There is other literature they can use. We are validating that these words are acceptable and they are not acceptable -- by no means. I do have information that shows how it physically and psychology can affect children, primarily African-American children.  My son can walk outside and be called that name. We don't need it in the school system."

The Christian Science Monitor has a good story on the issue, in which experts share their views:

Does teaching these books, or other examples of difficult and uncomfortable racially charged literature, mean that teachers are condoning this language? Of course not, many literature experts say – in fact, for many teachers, avoiding such stories would amount to erasing the reality of racism. "I think the key point to make here is that the burden of freedom of speech is not borne equally by all people. African-American students hear those words differently – the argument for banning the books is that the white kids don’t bear the burden of freedom of speech in the same way," Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University who specializes in children's literature, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dr. Nel says that while "Huck Finn," for example, is often touted as a great American classic, it is certainly not progressive insofar as it portrays African-American characters as racist stereotypes. Nevertheless, the fact that these books make many students and teachers uncomfortable is not a reason not to teach them, Nel says. In fact, the very discomfort that they provoke can be incredibly helpful in the hands of a sensitive teacher who can guide students through the experience and create greater dialogue.

I spent the weekend reading discussions about this thorny question and found a divide among educators and experts. Some teachers said it was unfair to force black students to read books that feature the N-word and trade in racial stereotypes, especially when classes read few books showing African-Americans as leaders and heroes.

Allen Webb of Western Michigan University writes, “It is timely for us English teachers to look beyond Huckleberry Finn, to find other works that might be more appropriate for all our students and more effective in creating multicultural communities of learning in our classrooms. Educating white students about prejudice with a text that is alienating to blacks perpetuates racist priorities, does it not? There is no excuse for the fact that not even one of the most taught works in American high schools is written from a minority perspective or that many college courses still include very little African-American literature. Why aren¹t the great African-American novels of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker more central to our teaching?”

This is a good essay by a teacher who stopped teaching "Huck Finn." Rebekah Shoaf writes, "The decisions we make about what young people read and write are sociopolitical acts. Our students are regularly bombarded with representations of how hostile, unjust, and dangerous the world is if you are a young person of color growing up today. They don’t need to read Huck Finn to learn about a Black man who is trapped and disempowered by American society. They already know that story."

But the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter of protest last year to a private school in Pennsylvania that pulled "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from its 11th grade American literature curriculum.

The letter stated:

Indeed, at a time of difficult and polarizing conversations about race, it is understandable that a novel which repeatedly uses a highly offensive slur would generate discomfort. But does the discomfort caused by the language or the ambiguities of the novel’s narrative outweigh the value of teaching the book?

Attempts to remove books from schools invariably claim that an idea or image offends or disturbs. But acceding to such demands denies everyone – the students protesting as well as those who would want to read the book – an opportunity to engage with the text in a meaningful way. A pedagogically sound approach to curricular selections requires educational professionals to ask whether a book is relevant to the students, not whether it is comfortable.

And Huckleberry Finn’s complex examination of race relations at a fraught moment in the country’s history makes it particularly relevant today. As Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison wrote, “In addition to the reverence the novel stimulates is its ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it has excited. The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.” Indeed, the challenge of reading Huck Finn is the reason why it should be read within the classroom, where its complexities and ambivalences can be contextualized and examined.

What do you think?


About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...