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'Hurtful' Harper Lee and Mark Twain dropped from Minnesota curriculum

‘Hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years’ … Brock Peters and Gregory Peck in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
‘Hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years’ … Brock Peters and Gregory Peck in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Photograph: Allstar

A school district in Minnesota has pulled To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum, arguing that the classic novels’ use of racial slurs risked students being “humiliated or marginalised”.

The Duluth school district will keep the titles in its libraries, but from the next school year, they will be replaced on the curriculum for ninth and 11th-grade English classes, according to local newspaper the Bemidji Pioneer.

Duluth’s director of curriculum and instruction Michael Cary told the Pioneer that his department wanted to be considerate of all its students, and that there were other literary options that “teach the same lessons” as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn without containing racial slurs. The N-word is used frequently in both titles – more than 200 times in Mark Twain’s 19th-century novel – but both are widely considered anti-racist texts.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalised by the use of racial slurs,” said Carey.

According to the Bemidji Pioneer, there was no specific complaint from students about the titles, but their use “created an uncomfortable atmosphere” in the classroom.

The Duluth move was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with president of the local chapter Stephan Witherspoon saying the books were “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years”.

“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” he said. “Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them.”

But the move was strongly criticised by the National Coalition Against Censorship, which said it was “deeply disturbed” by the decision, and urged the district to reconsider. While the NCAC said it was “understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students”, the anti-censorship organisation argued that “the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom.

“On the contrary, the classroom is where the history, use and destructiveness of this language should be examined and discussed. It is there that the books’ complexities can be contextualised and their anti-racist message can be understood,” it said. “Rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of colour.”

The decision in Duluth is not the first time that US schools have wrestled with how to teach two classic novels that nonetheless regularly feature on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged titles. Following a complaint from a parent in 2016, schools in Virginia pulled both novels from their curriculum, although they were later reinstated. And in 2017, schools in Mississippi removed Harper Lee’s novel over its “uncomfortable” and racially sensitive subject matter, although it was later returned to an “optional” reading list.

This article titled "'Hurtful' Harper Lee and Mark Twain dropped from Minnesota curriculum" was written by Alison Flood, for theguardian.com on Monday 12 February 2018 10.33am

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