An English teacher struggles with classics
That English teacher is me.
Recently, a student journalist at the school where I teach wrote an opinion piece for the school newspaper titled “Books with racial slurs should not be a part of the curriculum.” In it, she explains why books that use the n-word should not be taught, even when those books use it to illustrate how terrible racism is. She mentions Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
I know, white English teachers, you are probably thinking the same thing I thought when I first read it: “Come on, these books show how ugly racism is. I mean, Scout Finch and Huckleberry Finn grow and change and come to terms with their own ignorance throughout the pages of these masterpieces! And A Raisin in the Sun is written by a black woman! And, and, and To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books ever! And I named my cat Scout Finch!”
Something like that, all said in one breath, right? Except for that last part probably. That’s specifically me.
Clearly, I understand where you’re coming from. But these thoughts caught in my throat before they could become words. I realized by the time I made it to the end of this young journalist’s article that these thoughts were products of my white male privilege, of which, I have plenty.
There’s more too. I have never, in my career teaching everything from English to writing to reading to journalism to filmmaking to photography to design, had to teach a book with a racial slur quite as powerful as the n-word. Additionally, I am not now nor have I ever been a Black student taught by a white teacher in a classroom surrounded by white students. I can literally only imagine what it must feel like for a Black student in middle or high school to hear a respected adult use the n-word in any context.
But I’ll never, ever know. Ever.
I literally will never know.
To presume I have the life experience, the wisdom, and the knowledge to use that word in any setting in any way and somehow do it in any right way is to invalidate the Black experience in this country. To presume my experience being persecuted because I was “trailer park trash” or a comic book nerd or a long-haired hippy or poor is to invalidate the Black experience in this country. And if last year’s summer of discontent showed us anything, it showed us that the Black experience in this country is significantly different from the white, no matter what other descriptions we use for ourselves (Christian, nerd, poor, rich, etc.). And sure, there probably are Black students who aren’t bothered by it. But you know what? As a middle aged white man, I’m going to go ahead and err on the side of caution because I am also a teacher and when influencing the minds of future generations, it’s a good idea to do so cautiously.
“But that’s why we read these classics!” I can hear white English teachers vehemently pronounce. “Caution be damned! We teach students how terrible racism is! We know it isn’t perfect but we’re out here trying!” Cool. Cool. Cool. And, again, I understand. However, allow me to be pragmatic for a moment, allow me to address the elephant in the room that is the harsh reality of education: we are never going to reach all of the students.
Let me say that again for the Freedom Writers in the back. We are never going to reach all of the students.
I do not care how many nice administrators, ignorant politicians, obnoxious influencers, or misguided lecturers smile at everyone and explain that we can have 100% pass rates if we only, “Try a little harder,” or “Work a little more,” or, that esoteric nugget, “Learn to connect a little better.” It is simply not going to happen. Keeping this in mind, I ask, quite seriously, and without a hint of sarcasm in my voice, “Do you really think the kids who need to hear the messages in these books about how terrible racism is are even listening to you when you teach it?”
Probably… at least when you say the n-word. The writer puts it well in her article when she says:
“Allowing white teachers to use racial slurs… can be interpreted as a pass for other white people. The way this was explained to me by my white classmates was similar to, if my teacher can read it in a book, I can rap it in my favorite song.”
It is deeper than that though. This is not simply a matter of Black children feeling mildly uncomfortable. This is not simply a matter of accidentally offending a student with the reading material or accidentally giving a racist student proxy permission to use offensive words. It is the sum of these parts.
Using the n-word in any context brings into stark view the harsh reality that we will forever be a country with racist origins of subjugation and eradication. It brings into stark view the fact that we are less than 200 years away from slavery and less than a 100 from Jim Crow.
Is the middle or high school classroom the best place to do that?
Surprise, surprise, I say, vehemently, “Yes!” In fact, I think it should start in elementary school. In fact, I think it should start at home.
However, just like the writer says, I say we can and should do it without using literature that uses the n-word. We should look past the largely white experience with racism presented in many of these books. Or, as the writer puts it, “It seems like a no-brainer; most of our content about people of color are illusions envisioned in a white mind trying to fit a narrow perspective.” To cut my boy Twain a little slack, these books contain messages for white people about how terrible their racism is. Do Black kids need to be taught that white racism is terrible?
I mean… don’t they already know?
The fact is though, students of all races need to know more about this stain on American history. Again, if you doubted that, last summer proved it. Luckily, there are, in fact, other books, newer books, and at times, better books we can use as educators to talk about racism. We can and should teach these concepts without forcing Black and white children to read and/or hear read the n-word on a regular basis virtually every school year from eighth grade up.
For the record, this is not a matter of cancel culture striking again. This is not a matter of the easily offended whining about things that aren’t nearly as big a deal as they think. It is not an argument for a “safe space.” I do not in any way endorse censorship and I know the writer agrees with me. She is not saying we need to throw all these books on a bonfire and rid the world of their memory. There is good there.
In Twain, Lee, and Hansberry’s ages many more readers believed people of color were somehow “less than” white people and needed to be somehow saved. So these ideas are presented early in the books, only to be refuted later. And I welcome stories of growth like that. But leave Twain and Lee and Hansberry in the school library where students can read them if they wish, where teachers can suggest them to students who are more interested in what these issues were like 50, 100, or 150 years ago. Let teachers tell students about them, about how many of them are the white experience with racism and explain why they are not required reading. I am not suggesting removing the n-word from the writing — a ridiculous notion that defies the points the authors make. I am simply suggesting we do what is best for the children. After all, isn’t that one of the main points of education is about in this country?
Yes, this is a matter of doing what is best for the children, for the children of color in particular. For, again, when a respected white person utters the n-word for any reason, not only can it profoundly affect the Black students in the room, beyond offense, beyond safety, and beyond comfort, but it can normalize the word’s usage, no matter what that respected white person’s intentions.
Because the writer of the piece is a solution journalist, she suggests cutting the aforementioned classics and replacing them with books that are less about the white experience with racism and more about the Black, ones that do not contain the n-word. This, of course, is a great idea that I obviously support. She also endorses hiring more teachers of color. I endorse this as well, however, it is easier said than done. The systemic racism in our public institutions makes it more difficult for education to draw teachers of color. It’s a hard societal fact that needs to be addressed and resolved… probably by a smarter person than me.
The writer also suggests that educators have the tough discussions about racism in this country from the mass eradication of the Native Americans up through today’s prison industrial complex without resorting to fiction at all. There are, after all, actual incidents both historically and recently that can be discussed without the white saviorism, white lens, and overall whiteness found in many of these works of literature. This is also a great idea.
And I’m sure better teachers than me, along with their students, can find even more solutions. Still better ones. I don’t know. This is not a problem that will be solved over night because it is not a problem that popped up that way.
In the end, it is all about change. One of the greatest paradoxes of existing on this planet as a human being is that change is very difficult for many of us even as it is our only constant.
So, despite how scary it is, white English teachers, change we must. For if we do not, our students will always be trapped by the tyranny of the past.