Black experiences are dismissed in debate over school reading list

April 8, 2018

Dear Zenith News:


Kym Young’s support for the removal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from the required reading list in our schools emphasizes the poisonous nature of the n-word, going so far as to claim its responsibility for “loss of life,” adding that “you can kill me with just one word,” namely, the n-word. That the word has power is certainly true. Still, to ignore it, to put it “in the past tense,” as Young suggests, seems very dangerous.


Rather, I suggest keeping the novels as required reading will bring the racism in them clearly in sight, allowing both White children and children of color to face that racism squarely. As Philip Nel points out in his study of racism in children’s literature (Is the Cat in the Hat Black?), “If White children are going to stop perpetuating racism (either accidentally or intentionally), they will need to recognize racial injustice. If children of color are going to survive in America, they will need to learn how to respond to racism.” The use of the n-word in these two novels brings racism to the fore, where it can be confronted, so that all children can discover how it reveals the pervasive structural racism of our country. If the novels are not required reading, this opportunity vanishes.


Nel specifically addresses classroom approaches to the novels: “Teaching against racist books requires students and teachers to be uncomfortable. However, we should make our classrooms safe spaces for people to be uncomfortable. If students and their teacher commit to discomfort, we will not just learn. We will grow...Failing to confront racism is far more dangerous than ignoring it.”

Warren Howe
Duluth

 


Kym Young replies: Thank you for your insightful rebuttal of my opinion and experience. I respect your viewpoint and would like to further elaborate on your dismissal of Black experiences. You said that “to put [the n-word] ‘in the past tense,’ as Young suggests, seems very dangerous.” If by dangerous you mean a realization by White educators that the “n-word” perpetuates a social construct of degenerate inhumanity imposed upon Black and Brown people in order to segregate them from their White masters and relegate them to the status of property, animals, and three-quarters of a recognized person, then, yes, the word is dangerous, and its perpetuation makes it a killing word. It kills our humanity.


“As Philip Nel points out in his study of racism in children’s literature (Is the Cat in the Hat Black?), ‘If White children are going to stop perpetuating racism (either accidentally or intentionally), they will need to recognize racial injustice. If children of color are going to survive in America, they will need to learn how to respond to racism.’” White people created, instituted, and continue to perpetuate racism daily. New code words for the “n-word” such as “from Chicago,” “thug,” etc. are common. As for surviving and responding to racism, these are lessons taught in our homes and communities 24/7. How many White fathers have to have “the conversation” with their children about responding to police? How many White parents have to explain to your children that their lives do indeed matter? How many White parents have to constantly prepare their children to deal with racism when they walk out the door? How many times per day does the term “nigger” get applied to you? I’m guessing this is not your reality. Our children hear the “n-word” on average 15 times per day. We have been responding to and surviving racism for 400+ years.


“The use of the n-word in the two novels brings this racism to the fore where it can be confronted so that all children can discover how it reveals the pervasive, structural racism of our country. If the novels are not required reading, this opportunity vanishes.” No, the opportunity to hear from diverse authors increases. The complexity of racial perspectives from recipients of racism increases. The relevance of literature to the current sociopolitical climate of our times increases. These books do not need to be required, but offered alongside the works of James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and others whose perspectives from the receiving end of racism have been left out of the narrative in favor of a White savior viewpoint. How can White children equate a third-person White perspective to that of first-person Black and Brown perspectives? It’s like saying that by looking through my window you see my life. All you see is what you perceive of my life, not the reality. Only I can relate to you what those experiences are for me.


“If students and their teacher commit to discomfort, we will not just learn. We will grow...Failing to confront racism is far more dangerous than ignoring it.” Exactly! We are not asking you to ignore it. White people do that quite well, listening to respond instead of listening to understand that the only ones uncomfortable in classroom discussions of race-based literature are the Black and Brown students still being placed in a White narrative. Their perspectives are not placed alongside those of Atticus Finch and Huck Finn. Removing these books from the required reading list does not negate the books’ contributions and impact. It ensures that more diverse offerings are put on the same par, and it creates a more balanced curriculum. It increases the narrative and diversifies the perspective of students, giving them a more well-rounded understanding of the intersection and complexity of racial relations and the history of its perpetuation.


Considering your response was squarely based on your perspective as a White person, I hope my response—coming from my lived experiences as a Black person, raised and educated by White teachers, fed White history and White literary perspectives—gives you a clearer view into the window through which you are viewing us. I suggest that instead of just looking through my window, you knock on the door and ask if you may come in. The answer might surprise you. Just like books, in order to get the most out of them, you have to open them. And you have to read more than just one to get a good understanding of what it’s all about.

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