Based on the complaints of four parents over concerns of potential harm to their children, schools in Burbank, California will no longer be allowed to teach five classic, award-winning novels, three of which have been pillars of the Western canon of literature for decades.
The novels being set aside from the curriculum include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay, and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Three of the parents who initiated the complaint are black Americans concerned about the subject matter of race in these novels and the use of incendiary, racially charged language used in them.
The news that these books would be banned until further notice was delivered to Burbank’s middle school and high school English teachers on a Zoom meeting earlier this school year. There were concerns from some parents who questioned that the decision to try and protect the roughly 400 black students in the district who may have been hurt, offended, or upset by the novels was done without any participation from the community. These parents say they understand the concerns voiced but take exception with the alacrity with which the affair moved from complaint to a district-wide ban of legacy literature.
But the parents who complained challenged the orthodoxy that these books hold great value in teaching students about race. They dispute the claim that there is value to a piece of literature that can make one student so uncomfortable that she was “literally traumatized,” according to one of the mothers who lodged the protest, speaking about her daughter. And another mother who joined the complaint alleged that “there’s no counter-narrative to this black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them.”
In Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the main character is a young boy who learns about life from a wise, hardscrabble black man, so the aggrieved mother’s descriptor doesn’t apply in that instance. But in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a white Southern lawyer who takes the case against a falsely accused black man named Tom Robinson. Atticus could easily be seen as a white savior gallantly risking his career and reputation to rescue a black man from jail or mob justice – and that inequity of portrayal could be understandably nettlesome to some. It seems the one-sidedness of the narrative is what these mothers take exception to.
But the best solution may not have been to reflexively respond with little forethought and even less input from the community these schools serve. An open debate might have gone a long way to allowing parents of goodwill on both sides to air their grievances, thoughts, and feelings. Perhaps adding well-regarded books from black vantage points would have been a better way to balance the varying historical perspectives on race the mothers who took umbrage felt were lacking in these five books.
Further complaints were raised that the books framed issues of racism as a thing of the past rather than something still being dealt with today. In light of the current year in which race issues were once again thrust to the cultural forefront, the concerns from these parents are understandable. But as has often been said about free speech, the solution to expression that is offensive to some is not to shut it down but to offer more free speech to counter the narrative. It is undoubtedly a time to wonder aloud and to think twice about how we have framed discussions of race in this country. But one wonders if preventing the often stirring and resonant themes offered in these towering works of literature from being taught is the best remedy.
Both the NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship) and PEN America issued statements and petitions in favor of the books in question being reinstated by the Burbank Unified School District. NCAC generated a letter that stated, “we believe that the books … have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum.” And PEN issued a statement in defense of these mighty if controversial works:
“Each of the books in question deals with difficult subject matter from our country’s complicated and painful history, including systemic racism. Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.”
To hold books, films, art, music, and even people of the past to contemporary standards is a nearly impossible metric by which to measure what is of value and what has inherent worth. Wielded carelessly, the power of indiscriminate erasure is a zero-sum game. It has to be possible to hold up the great work of artists of the past and the inspiring words of cultural giants who have preceded us with good faith, sensitivity, and a widened aperture allowing for multiple perspectives and counter-narratives. If we can be allowed to consider the richness of our cultural history alongside its often terrible flaws while creating space to hear new voices, listen to hurt, and understand dissenting views, we will continue to fulfill the promise of greatness in the American charter.
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