In a move to protect students from “racial slurs,” a Virginia school district has banned the reading of two classics of American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Dealing with the era of American slavery, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn places the word “nigger” in the mouths of both white and black characters, while Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird recounts a lawyer’s defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama.
The Accomack County Public Schools has banned the classic novels after a mother said her high school-age son was troubled by the racial slurs they contain and asked for the books to be removed from school reading lists.
The mother, whose son is biracial, said her son was required to read Huckleberry Finn for a high school assignment, but could not get past a certain page in the story on which the N-word appeared seven times.
“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,” she argued at a school board meeting. “This is great literature. But there (are so many) racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that.”
This is not the first time that these novels have faced censorship. Since its publication in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been criticized, censored, and banned for an array of perceived faults, including “obscenity, atheism, bad grammar, coarse manners, low moral tone, and antisouthernism.”
Despite the fact that the thesis of Huckleberry Finn is profoundly anti-racist, the inclusion of offensive language has been enough to anathematize the work.
For its part, the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned repeatedly from school classrooms and libraries since its appearance in 1960, due to its “racial content, profanity, and references to rape.”
A racial slur reportedly appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and 48 times in To Kill a Mockingbird.
“So what are we teaching our children?” the mother asked. “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by (any) means,” she said, while noting psychological effects that language has on children.
“There is other literature they can use,” she argued.
The mother proposed assembling a committee of parents and teachers of different ethnic backgrounds to compile a list of books that would be “inclusive” for all students.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter Follow @tdwilliamsrome