“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee are classics of American literature. Moreover, both novels are searing indictments of racial injustice. However, since the books use racially charged language typical for the times depicted, a school district in Accomack County, Virginia is contemplating banning both books from school libraries and the classroom. The move is being contemplated because of the complaint of a single parent who feels her teenage, bi-racial son is being traumatized by being exposed to such language, according to a story in the Washington Post.
The controversy is replete with a number of societal issues. These include the growing hypersensitivity of young millennials to ideas and situations they find uncomfortable, the inability of Americans to come to terms with its racial past, and the tendency of people to want to ban books for everyone else that they find abhorrent.
Authors ranging from J.K. Rowling to Ray Bradbury are regularly challenged because their books are considered too dangerous for young readers.
The comedian George Carlin used to elicit laughter with a routine on the “seven deadly words you can’t use on TV.” Now we have the eighth word, referred to as “the N-word,” that no one can use anywhere at any time. To be sure the word in question was most often used to hurt, demean, and dehumanize and should never be used to refer to another human being. But a generation ago, the comedian Richard Pryor used the word continuously in his routines, which often were derived from his growing up as a black person in segregated Mississippi. He wrote some of the dialogue for the Mel Brooks classic movie “Blazing Saddles” which lampooned racism but also made a liberal use of the word in question.
In 21st Century America, a person’s career can be ruined if he or she has been found out to have uttered the word in any context. Just ask the celebrity chef Paula Deen if the gentle reader doubts this.
The best solution to having “Huckleberry Finn” and “Mockingbird” in school to use the books as teaching tools in the use of language in the past as opposed to modern times. Students nor teachers should not be forced to read offending passages aloud. However, both books should spark discussions on language, what is acceptable, and what is not and why. People used to call restraint in language politeness. It has now devolved into political correctness.