The 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?
Last night Kish and I and Mr. and Mrs. JV went to the Ohio Theater for a visit by David Sedaris, the best-selling author, essayist, and serial contributor to National Public Radio.
Sedaris is an extremely funny man. You might call him a humorist, the latest in a long line that stretches back to Mark Twain and Will Rogers and Bill Cosby of the late ’60s/early ’70s chicken heart era. Rather than just throwing out one-liners, Sedaris tells tales of his childhood and his family, his beachfront home on the North Carolina shoreline, and his travels. His stories build and twist and turn, hysterical and loving and mixed with social commentary all at once, always written with just the right observation and word choice. It’s not easy to write something funny, but Sedaris makes it seem effortless.
Last night Sedaris read some of his pieces, then turned to selected entries from his diary, and finally fielded some questions from the audience. The stories were vintage Sedaris — one about his effort to have a fatty tumor cut off by a random doctor who agreed to return it, in violation of federal law, so Sedaris could feed it to an old snapping turtle, another about his younger brother whose conviction that vaccinations cause autism is just one of many curious beliefs — and his diary entries, from around the world, touched upon his interest in having a different meal on Thanksgiving, the sensible British approach to what words may be used on radio, and other topics. Along the way he threw in a few X-rated jokes about a snotty kid who gets a surprising answer when he asks his grandfather to “tell me something I don’t know” and a woman’s visit to her gynecologist.
Sedaris kept his audience well entertained with just a podium, a table with some liquids to wet his whistle, his notes, and of course his personality and his voice. The setting recalled an earlier time, when Americans didn’t need to have loud music and constant visual stimulation to be entertained. But be forewarned — while Sedaris’ venue is a throwback of sorts, his sensibilities and language are thoroughly modern and likely to veer suddenly into the scatological and sexual at any moment. It’s not a show for kids.
I’m sure it’s not easy being a loud-mouthed dictator under any circumstances, and it’s probably even harder to be a successful autocrat when you have to interrupt the normal propaganda programming on national TV to deny rumors of your own death. It’s undoubtedly tough to rule by bullying and intimidation when those you are trying to bully and intimidate think you might already be toes up.