This week (the week of Sept. 30th, 2012) is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. As someone who loves books and who has been greatly challenged and stretched by some of these “banned books”, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you why it’s important to keep “banned books” in our libraries, and especially in our schools.
As you may know, I am a licensed secondary English teacher. As a part of my student teaching, I had the privilege of teaching Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to 9th graders at a small rural-ish (almost entirely white & Latino/a) school in Minnesota. But before I continue my story, let me share a little background on the controversy surrounding this novel:
- In the last ten years, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the #21 most challenged book.
- Although its major race-related theme is the injustice and wrongness of racism, it is often challenged for being a racist book or for “promot[ing] white supremacy.”
- One of the most frequent reasons cited for its banning is the use of the word “nigger”.
Now, back to my classroom. Knowing a few of my mischievous 9th graders as I did, I decided to be proactive about the use of the “n-word” in our classroom. I spent five minutes at the start of the first reading day explaining to my students that, although the author used that word frequently to accurately depict the setting of her writing, it was not acceptable for them to use that word, and they should count this as their fair warning that anyone choosing to say that word in class would be sent directly to the office.
Of course, the first “culprit”, to my embarrassment, was a student whose English proficiency was not up to grade level and who, I’m pretty sure, accidentally let it slip only because he had read it so many times in the novel. (But, follow-through-er as I was, I sent him to the office as promised, poor kid. I make me wince sometimes.) That night, I went home and designed an entire lesson specifically to educate my students about the historical significance of the “n-word”, because it was clear to me that the vast majority of them had no idea what they were (not) saying.
The next day, we went through my lesson and I did my level best to help my students understand that the “n-word” was so awful because of the hateful, dehumanizing racism it embodied. I searched for and found a photo that I thought exemplified the demeaning stereotype whites created to oppress blacks, and we discussed it:
Before, the class had been its usual jovial self; as soon I showed this image, it was silent. You could feel the shock in the room, and when I finally coaxed responses to the discussion questions they were muted and brief.
After I was sure the meaning of the word had been made clear, we talked about the history of various words used to describe African-Americans (including which terms are generally acceptable today) and then ended by taking a few minutes for the students to jot what they had learned on a notecard. Most responses were simple — “I learned never to say that word” — but a few students shared more deeply:
I learned that the “n word” is more meaningful than I thought. I knew you shouldn’t use it but I didn’t know it was that important.
I found out that colored is not a good word to call a black/African-American person.
I learned today that black people were introduced as monkeys and were set up as them just because their skin was a color that some people didn’t like. I hate how whites think they can make fun of a different skin color!
I thought it was very sad when we learned about the bank of a man and saw the resemblance between it and the one of a monkey. I will never call anyone that word because of how disrespectful it is.
I learned that black people are not bad, and have never been bad. White people just made them out to be bad, and made them seem like they were [bad] to everyone. They are the same as us, just different colored skin, but that means nothing. They are still the same as us, and we are still the same as them.
My feelings were changed about how people treat other people that people were really awful to people that were different races and they still do. I got chills when I heard the things that people did and said and even showed the African American people as. It was upsetting to me and really hit a spot in my heart that had never really been touched before. Thank you. : )
I share these not to toot my own horn — clearly I was not a model teacher! — but to show the incredible need to educate our young people about past sins in order to help them understand their present world.
If To Kill a Mockingbird (or other books that contain “the n-word”) were banned, this conversation never would have happened. If we had never brought the “n-word” into our classroom, all those students would still not understand why their hackles raise when they hear it, or why it is taboo to say it. If I or the school or the parents had tried to sweep it under the rug, my students would have remained ignorant, and the only way to make any good out of our messy, hurtful, embarrassing history is to stop it from repeating itself. So I ask you this: If we sanitize our schools of all the ugly past, how will we ever learn from it?
Humanity is cruel and kind, evil and good, racist and just, murderous and life-giving. We learn how to act by seeing both what to do and what not to do. Removing the “bad parts” from our children’s education doesn’t make them better people, just more likely to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.
So this week, check out a “banned book”! You don’t have to like it — you don’t have to think it’s appropriate for any age (most things are not) — but please, before you reject it as a “filthy, trashy novel”, think about what we it might teach us and how it might help us to avoid repeating history.