I would ask that before you continue reading you take a deep breath and approach this article with an open mind.
This article is about more than race and censorship, but whether our modern educational system can appreciate the valuable lessons we can learn from embracing historical literature. Classic works such as the “Iliad,” “Ulysses,” and “Moby Dick” are too important to be restricted to the time period in which they were written. We can debate the order in which great literature may be ranked, but we cannot deny some books transcend the date of their publication, such as “The Adventures of Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Mark Twain was brilliant as was his mastery of the English language, especially when infused with our many American dialects (both in speech and thought). Twain’s books and short stories loom ever present over American literature. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” is considered by many to be one of the great American novels, if not the greatest.
I cannot pretend I possess the same understanding as Harper Lee had when she wrote another American masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee’s first and only novel (putting aside the questionable ”?Go Set a Watchman”) was an immediate classic upon its release in 1960. If you are only going to write one book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” would be hard to top.
Both books continually rank in the top 100 of most literary critics’ “greatest novels of all time.” Although the publication of these books is separated by almost 100 years, they share another unfortunate distinction. Both have been banned throughout their existence, first by southern states hoping to repress the negative reflections of a racist South, and today because some would suggest the content, and in particular the use of a key word, is distressing to some students.
Certain school systems decided they can no longer handle the reading of either book. The most recent is Duluth, Minnesota. Over the past 50 years or more school systems have removed these books from their required reading list. In the 1960s, many southern schools banned them outright, most likely because they exposed racist institutions for what they were, evil. However, today these books are being pulled away from students because the path of least resistance may seem easier at first, until you realize we learn far more when we are challenged to think and to overcome our “safe places.”
The primary reason today for banning these books is the use of the word “n***er.” I choose not to use the “n-word” phrasing, not because I am a racist, or that I am unsympathetic of the pain this word carries. Just the opposite. I would have preferred to spell the word out because of its vileness, because the mere utterance of it should turn the stomach of any decent person. However, I am not sure the editors or some readers would accept my reasoning. It is a word that was used, and still is, to dehumanize an individual. The word so upsets me, that when President Obama spoke it a few years ago, and was criticized, I wrote a post defending him (https://tinyurl.com/vileword). Both “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huck Finn” use the word not to perpetuate a racist thought, but to expose its revolting legacy.
I could not imagine a life where I had not read “The Adventures of Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” just as I could not imagine an education that did not include the reading and discussion of “Frankenstein,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the collective works of Shakespeare. Dated dialect, thought-provoking themes and complex prose aside, classical literature is as important to a well-rounded student as math or science. “Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” were instrumental in shaping millions of students around the world and they still possess that power.
However, reading the books alone were not the most crucial aspect, it was the in-classroom discussion and dinner table conversation. My mother would always say to me, “Look beyond the words. Moby Dick is more than a fish story.” “Huck Finn” is no more a book about a runaway boy as “Mockingbird” is a book about a southern gentleman lawyer.
Read correctly, accompanied by an honest and open discussion (that my teachers saw fit to oversee), these books are essential to the very conversations we are trying to have today. If all you are going to do is hand this book out and say “read this,” maybe it is better we just cast them aside. But if you have the courage and faith in yourself, and listen to the words of Jean Louise Finch (Scout) – “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts,” – there are still extremely vital lessons we can learn.
These books require a more disciplined approach to an open, intellectual discussion to the narrative, and with some schools banning the books or removing them from required reading, one needs to wonder what we are afraid of. We should try spending less time re-writing history and more time applying intellect to their intended interpretation. What we lack today is an ability to put ourselves in the body narrative, to look at each character through their eyes, to be transported to a time and place of importance.
These books were brilliant because they place the reader into a child’s body, with a child’s uncomplicated approach to life. They put these future adults into an adult world and surround them with injustice. If not for Scout and Huck, and their innocence exposed to the wrong that encircled them, millions of people today would be missing the opportunity to think beyond themselves, or as Scout would say “One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.”
There are few more powerful moments in any book as when Scout’s brother Jem utters “that ain’t fair” and when Huck Finn proclaims, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” If you do not know the meaning behind each of these statements, you do not know the influence both books have when discussing racism and injustice in our world.
Some would suggest both books are dated and appear to be trying to explain racism to white people. I would not necessarily disagree. Both are written by white people who had an unfiltered look at the absolute depravity men can bestow on their fellow man. I fully support school systems that apply guidelines regarding age-appropriate reading. I have often expressed concerns when teachers introduced controversial material out of context, failing to offer a balanced approach to the topic. However, “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are rare pieces of literature that rise above the barriers some impose on others to save their feelings. Both remind us our minds, like a book, serve our society best when they are open.