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Battle of the books

Concerns about racism lead to cancellations

People listen to a marathon reading of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Associated Press/Photo by Mel Evans (file)

Battle of the books

The Chicago-area Lyons Township High School announced last week it would no longer teach Mark Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Karen Raino, chairwoman of the language arts department, told the Riverside/Brookfield Landmark that African American students and families had expressed discomfort over the years with the book’s “white savior” theme and its use of the N-word. (The racial slur appears more than 200 times in the text.) The school’s English teachers voted unanimously to eliminate study of the novel. In lieu of Twain, students can choose a book with a “social justice” theme to read.

Huck has generated controversy since its first publication in 1884. That same decade, Massachusetts librarians rejected the book as “rough, coarse, and inelegant.” Serious challenges over the book’s use of racial slurs began in 1950 by the NAACP. Today, criticism on racial grounds continues:

In California, Burbank Unified School District prohibited classes from teaching the novel in November, along with four others for “potential harm to … roughly 400 Black students.” Lawmakers in New Jersey introduced legislation in March of 2019 calling on schools to voluntarily remove the book from their curriculums. Duluth, Minn. high schools dropped Huck (along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) from English classes in February 2018 because of “oppressive language” that “made students feel uncomfortable.”

Christians should take parents’ and students’ complaints seriously. Teacher and homeschooler Betsy Farquhar of Redeemedreader.com said it’s possible to read and teach the book to high schoolers with care. The plot involves a young Huck wrestling with whether to report his companion, the escaped slave Jim.

“You can make an argument that Huckleberry Finn really celebrates the image of God, even in an enslaved person like Jim, because Huck is treating Jim with way more respect than Jim would have been treated in his original situation,” she said. “So you can start to wrestle, especially with high school kids, with this tension.”

Recent removals of the book reflect a new threat to free speech. In the past, educators and librarians often embraced the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, including extreme interpretations that protected the use of pornography. Many in the book business also sought robust free speech protections. In 2018, the National Coalition Against Censorship (representing National Association of Teachers of English, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Authors Guild, and American Booksellers for Free Expression) protested the Duluth school’s removal of Twain over “serious First Amendment concerns.”

Now, many teachers and librarians support book-challenging initiatives like #DisruptTexts. On Tuesday, Dr. Seuss’ birthday, the publisher of Seuss’ books said it would no longer publish six of his titles because of “racist images” as determined by experts, including educators and academics. One such image from the first Seuss book, And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) shows a caricature of an Asian man in a pointed hat with chopsticks and refers to him as “a Chinese man who eats with sticks.”

Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Geisel, published more than 35 children’s books. He died in 1991. Early in his career, he created political cartoons that portrayed Asian and African Americans as animal-like. His better-known books such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Horton Hears a Who became synonymous with early childhood reading, which is why the National Education Association partnered with Dr. Seuss Enterprises in 1997 for the annual Read Across America campaign. In recent years, the NEA has de-emphasized Seuss’ characters and his birthday, which was celebrated in schools across the country, and moved toward a year-round campaign to promote diversity in reading.

Emily Whitten

Emily is a book critic and writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Mississippi graduate, previously worked at Peachtree Publishers, and developed a mother's heart for good stories over a decade of homeschooling. Emily resides with her family in Nashville, Tenn.



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