A frank discussion about free speech, censorship, and historical context might be at best overdue, at worst, too late; but, in light of a recent incident — a Minnesota public school has now removed two classic pieces of literature from its required reading list — it is grimly apparent Americans have capriciously dismissed from memory what happens after books burn.
Hint: It isn’t pretty. And if the trend continues unhindered by the vociferous outrage even the softest of censorship deserves, yet further rights on a dwindling list will evaporate.
Palliative at best, dangerous at worst, this soothing of piqued nerves in deference to presenting provocative works in a salient context fails the litmus test. For instance, summoning historical circumstances, the current political climate, and instructing topic matter as an admonishment against a return to such thinking would serve students infinitely better in awareness than shunning the rage and abject sadness, the uncomfortability, conjured by the words.
Racial epithets, replete throughout the now-flagged classics, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, made students and parents in Duluth, Minnesota, feel “uncomfortable” — thus, prompting the well-intentioned school district to retire the works to shelves, and off the obligatory course material list.
But that’s the point, scholars, academics, journalists, appreciative laypeople, and a vociferous segment of the internet contend — immersing oneself in difficult subject matter through the relatively safe vehicle of literature is supposed to be uncomfortable.
Without that intimate literary experience, the empathetic taking-on of various characters’ shoes, if you will, the brutality of history is fated to repeat in an equally unpleasant manner — its selfsame example in the very actions taken by 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,” Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the Duluth district, cited by the Independent, told the Twin Cities’ Pioneer Press.
In neglecting to address fundamental reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn remain unquestioned fixtures on required reading lists throughout the U.S. — despite the slurs and wholly uncomfortable subject matter — the conversation about race Cary proffers as necessary will not be candid. By instead capitulating, the Duluth school district failed its job of educating — failed to teach that history is sordidly cyclical, that it often repeats through misplaced but good intentions, and, crucially, that censorship is always a weapon. It failed the penultimate opportunity for that exact discussion.
Worse, officials neglected that censorship is contagious. To Kill a Mockingbird has already come under heavy fire, just across the border, in Wisconsin.
“The Monona Grove School District is reviewing an African-American parent [sic] request to remove the Harper Lee novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the high school English curriculum,” local columnist and artist, Fabu, writes for Cap Times. “The request, made by Tujama and Jeannine Kameeta, cites 48 racial slurs directed at African-Americans in the book, the fact that no African-American writers are read in the same English curriculum, and the character of Atticus Finch as an example of the ‘white savior’ complex with African-Americans not portrayed as active in their own fight for freedom.
“These parents have a son in the ninth grade at Monona Grove High School. I’d like to thank them for speaking on behalf of their son, and seeking to protect him through this formal petition.”
That latter thought, protection (however well-intentioned), represents the most pervasively pernicious — read: successful — impetus for the banning of books, suppression of art, silencing of music, and censorship of information than arguably any other in the history of humankind. So perilous is the course once soft censorship begins, it should be unfathomable to educators and parents — even as an rare option.
Apart from the oblivious English curriculum devoid of African-American writers — if indeed the case, a matter deserving examination and correction — every concern listed by the Kameetas presents an occasion for Lee’s writing to be taught in modern context, giving the work updated interpretation matching not only a better understanding of the nation’s past mistakes, but one evincing that some progress has been made. Indeed, such lesson plan would also help students of every race see improvement as an ongoing process — that the nation is far from a tolerant, loving place for many — and, imperatively, slipping backward can and does occur.
These lessons, however invaluable, will be lost in a way that pains those who love literature — particularly, for that reason.
None of this, however, addresses the truer motivating factor in the rush to make uncomfortable literature less accessible — to hope it simply vanishes in the rearview mirror along with its era of brazen racism writ large into law, the shame of human slavery before that, and all the evils committed by humans against other humans for baseless reasons throughout the course of history. And that would incontestably be fear.
A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.
Author Ellen Hopkins, who penned those lines, has censors pegged — though Duluth et al. aren’t censoring out of cowardice or want of power. This fear does not lack courage.
Rather, this brand of fear spawned from a monster of such scope and magnitude it still lives and breathes, and is thriving, thanks to an administration seemingly nurturing its perpetuation — and that beast, of course, is racism. From its roots in this nation through more recent history, as well as its place in our present — and it’s fast becoming apparent the United States might never confront its shameful and appallingly systemic function of racism head-on — if ever at all.
Obligatory history classes infamously gloss over the topics of slavery, segregation, violence, and genocide — to name but a few glaring deficiencies — in essence, a push to simply forget how horrifically this nation has oppressed, brutalized, and mistreated its minority populations.
Attempting to bury the past, never acknowledging the rawness of wounds nor complicity in wrongs, veritably ensuring those mistakes manifest again, the past living on through generations not taught otherwise. Racism shouldn’t be an inherited ‘trait’ — relegating its ugliness to the dusty corners of a school library will do nothing to stop its continuation. Nothing.
America doesn’t just have a racist past.
Banning books thus damages more than the words they contain ever could — and that’s a most uncomfortable truth, indeed.