Friday, November 03, 2023

Banning Books From the Left

This story in the Washington Post today deals with a group of teachers who are asking that no one in their school district be allowed to assign To Kill a Mockingbird to their students.

Their argument is that the book, which in part deals with racism in the South in the 1930s, centers around white characters and the white savior, Atticus Finch, and does not deal realistically with black characters or allow black characters realistic agency. There's also the fact that the novel uses the n-word, though as I recall it's only used by "trashy" and bigoted characters. As I recall, Atticus mildly tells Scout not to use the word, at one point, because it's "common." (The classism of the book is not discussed.)

These are good points, and I can't help noticing that the defenders of the book in the article are all white. I do think Harper Lee's book appeals to white moderates, who were, after all, her intended audience. And having read Lee's sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I can't help reading back the reactionary politics of that book into Mockingbird. So I understand where these teachers are coming from, I guess is what I'm saying. And I certainly am not defending Lee's book, even though I loved it to pieces as a kid.

On the other hand, banning books is banning books. If they had wanted, as was their apparent first motive, to just removed the book from the required curriculum, I would have been with them 100%. Their point about how using a book by a black author which deals with racism would be a better approach -- that's a solid argument. 

Also, I don't think teachers should be forced to assign specific books. We have a thing here at our university where we assign a common text to all the freshmen students in our Comp II class, but we also allow teachers not to assign that text and sub in a different one. One year when the book assigned was an apologetic for Nazis (not the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, but one like that one), I honestly could not teach it. Even thinking about teaching it made me queasy.

But they wanted to keep anyone in the school district from assigning the book in their classroom. The book can stay on the library shelf, they said, but no student should be forced to read it. (As a side note, I'd like to see anyone force a student to read anything. I mean, have these people met students?) That, I think, is a step too far. And I think the school district did the right thing -- the decision they made was that the book could be assigned, but no longer *had* to be assigned.

Anyway, it's a thoughtful piece, which I recommend if you have access to the Washington Post.

These two paragraphs encapsulate the issue:

“We profoundly question why we should read a book by a White author, in which Black characters are secondary, voiceless, meek, and two-dimensional,” Kuzmany of Kamiak said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks.

“I am standing against taking books out of the hands of our students for any reason,” Freemon of Mariner said, according to a copy of her prepared remarks. “There is not one novel that we teach at the high school that is not offensive to someone, in some capacity.”



nicoleandmaggie said...

Wouldn't it be easier to add rather than subtract? To Kill a Mockingbird but only if you also get Their Eyes Were Watching God? Or any of the other classics of the genre written by Black authors centered on the historical experience of Black people. (And the option to do the latter without the former.)

delagar said...

I think that's what they're doing -- you can still assign TKM, but you can also assign books by Black authors, or you can assign those instead.

Honestly I think one of the problems is that (some) teachers don't want to have to read new books. They want to teach the same books they read in high school, and that they have been teaching for year. :(

nicoleandmaggie said...

I wish we could ban A Separate Peace. It was out of date when I read it in high school in the 1990s and I can't *believe* my kids have to read it.

delagar said...

My kid HATED A Separate Peace. I also had to read it in high school, and I remember it being boring and pointless, but I don't remember disliking it much. My kid, though, wow, he had like a 20 minute discourse on why it was a terrible book that no one should be made to read.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I agree with your kid!