Can The Ban

The Duluth, Minnesota school system has decided to remove two of the finest American novels ever written from its curriculum because it is concerned that today’s students will be upset by them.

huck-finnThe two books are Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which many scholars consider to be the best American novel yet written, and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which is clearly one of the finest novels written during the 20th century.  They will both be removed from the syllabus for the school system’s ninth grade and eleventh grade English classes, although the school system will allow copies of the books to remain in the school library.  The school district said it was removing the books from the curriculum because of concerns they might make certain students feel “humiliated or marginalized.”

Of course, both books directly tackle the issues of race in America, with Huckleberry Finn taking an unflinching look at slavery in pre-Civil War America and To Kill A Mockingbird focusing on bigotry and prejudice against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South.  Both books use the “n-word,” both books feature horrible racist characters, and both books involve upsetting scenes, appalling brutality, and themes that reflect poorly on the American soul.  That’s what makes the two books such uniquely powerful exercises in American literature.  And there’s no doubt that reading the books and considering the issues of slavery and racism they raise, and then talking about them in a classroom, will make students of all races and backgrounds feel uncomfortable — but there’s nothing wrong with a little discomfort along the path to greater understanding.  It’s hard for me to believe that anyone who reads either of those books could come away thinking that racism is good or that the vile, ignorant racist characters are to be emulated in any way.  I think both books in fact teach a good lesson and also have the value of demonstrating, through compelling stories, how the history of slavery and racism have stained our American character.

And, of course, removing the two acknowledged classics from the school’s curriculum sends an important, but bad, message about freedom of speech and that there are some things that are just too upsetting for students to be exposed to.

The Duluth school district’s curriculum director said that its schools planned to replace the novels with texts that “teach the same lessons” without using racist language.  Good luck with that!  How can you teach the lesson that racism is bad without exposing students to the brutality, unfairness, and ignorance of racists and their true nature?

Harper Lee, R.I.P.

Writer Harper Lee died today in Monroeville, Alabama.  She was 89.

gty_harper_lee_tk_131016_16x9_992I’d be willing to bet good money that most obituaries about Ms. Lee will begin with the words:  “Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, . . ..”  She was, and always will be, associated with that one book.  Why not?  It is indisputably one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, and also a book that captured a moment in history, and a time and place, so vividly, and sketched characters so indelibly memorable, that it is one of those books that you would gladly read over and over again.  No one who has read that book will ever forget the adventurous Scout, the thoughtful Jem, the quiet dignity of falsely accused Tom Robinson, the mysterious Boo Radley, and the noble Atticus Finch.

And, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that did far more than what most books ever even aspire to do:  it helped to change the world.  By quietly telling a story of one instance of rank and sickening racial injustice in a small town in Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird illuminated the dark underbelly of the American Dream and the blindered perspective of 1950s America.  The book, published in 1960, was one of the cultural elements that forced America to deal with the Jim Crow South and the heinous mistreatment of African-Americans in the states of the old Confederacy, and in the rest of the country as well.  What other novels have accomplished so much?  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps — but the list is not a long one.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.  You have made your mark, left a legacy that will endure, and served your conscience and your country well.

To Kill A Mockingbird At 50

Harper Lee published her classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, 50 years ago this summer.  It is a timeless story that has had a huge impact on readers ever since.  Interestingly, although the novel tells a story that focuses on the unique culture of racism in the American South of the mid-20th century, it is enormously popular outside of America.  The BBC has a story about the book that notes that it is consistently ranked as one of the most beloved books in England, and the comments to the BBC piece bear that out.

Like many other people, I loved the book and loved the movie.  I think it would be hard not to like Jem and Scout, to be curious about the mysterious Boo Radley, to be awed by Atticus Finch and his battle against an ugly entrenched culture, and to be deeply saddened and angered by the racism and unfairness of the Jim Crow South.  I have no doubt that the powerful message of To Kill A Mockingbird contributed to the changing cultural and social conditions that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of government-supported segregation and discrimination in America.

I also am sure that the character of Atticus Finch caused many people to want to become a lawyer.  In a society where lawyers increasingly are presented as money-grubbing charlatans, the decency, dignity, and ethical compass of Atticus Finch stand out.  Those of us who are lawyers should be grateful to Harper Lee for creating a character who represents the good that lawyers can do and demonstrates the respect they can command.