Racial terms and the books that are filled with them

During the coverage of the use of the racially charged word at Poulsbo Elementary School, a few commenters raised the issue of whether schools should stop having students read some pieces of literature.

“Do you mean to say that you doubt the value of a Martin Luther King Jr in the world? Or of a Samuel Clemons and a Huckleberry Finn?”

“We’d best burn all copies of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to spare the children and their parents future further discomfort.
Better throw in To Kill A Mockingbird for good measure.”

Or if he reads Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”.
Or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”.
Or even Alex Haley’s “Roots” – come to that.

The next one is especially prescient:

“Enroll your children in Charter or Private School immediately! Common Core propaganda “teaching” will warp your child’s cognitive skills and retard his/her intellect. Seriously!”

It’s prescient because our latest issue comes from just such a private school, Crosspoint Academy in the Chico area. It seems parents there are capable of noticing these issues, too.

Roland and Naomi Truitt said their son, who is in eighth grade, brought home the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The Truitts are black and said their son is the only black student in his class. There was little notice beforehand about the book, they said. There had been an email from the teacher telling parents the students would be reading the book and instructions for how to download a copy, but not discussion of some of the language in the book they thought warranted ample conversation before engaging in the Mark Twain classic. The Truitt’s sought a conversation with the school’s administrator, Nick Sweeney, which they did receive. They asked if other books that accomplish the same purposes could be considered. They asked that if Tom Sawyer were to be the book read, that someone who is trained in culturally sensitive history be allowed into the classroom to discuss the book’s language with the school children. In the end, they said, nothing really changed. They’re not certain the teacher is equipped to adequately address the sensitive issue, or what kind of conversation there was ahead of time.

Sweeney, for his part, has not returned two requests I made to him on Thursday to talk about the issue. I can’t say for sure that he won’t talk about the it, but in an an email he sent to the Truitts following a conversation he had with Robert Boddie, who was requesting a conversation, he said the school does not “disclose information about any actions to outside press, lawyers, agents or others,” so his silence so far is in line with that statement. We don’t have Crosspoint’s side of story.

Our readers who mentioned other books that contain the n-word are drawing upon recent history. Tom Sawyer has been controversial, but not nearly as much as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Tom Sawyer the main villain is a Native American who is repeatedly referred to in insensitive terms. Tom and Huck also use the n-word four times. In Huck Finn the n-word appears 218 times, according to Auburn University English Professor Alan Gribben.

In 2003 a student at Renton High School asked that Huck Finn be banned, even though the class where it was assigned spent two weeks discussing the language, the context and laid out ground rules for the class before anyone even opened the book.

For Gribben, all that controversy over the words “formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers” he wrote in the introduction of the version of the Tom and Huck he had published. “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. Twain’s two books do not deserve ever to join that list of literary ‘classics’ he once humorously defined as those ‘which people praise and don’t read,’ yet the long-lofty status of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn has come under question in recent decades.”

The books are a satire of the racism of the time, yet their use as standard reading in schools was diminishing, because of the language. Gribben wanted people who might shy away because of the language to know the books, so he replaced the n-word with “slave” and he modified the phrase used form the villain in Tom Sawyer and a few other phrases.

Gribben’s other justification for doing this was because Twain used to read his daily writings to an audience outside his house and would take note of language the listeners liked or didn’t. He’d make changes because of it. Gribben is suggesting Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain was his pen name, I probably don’t have to tell you.) might have made the change himself had he ever read the stories from Tom and Huck to an audience that cared.

Critics saw Gribben’s move as wrongheaded. In a story published by the BBC, Cindy Lovell, executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, said, “The book is an anti-racist book and to change the language changes the power of the book.” We’re supposed to be uncomfortable with the language, she said. “He wrote to make us squirm and to poke us with a sharp stick. That was the purpose.”

There are other parallels. For a while there was a slate of companies that would edit out of movies content people found objectionable. It gave some people access to stories they would otherwise have not seen. But sometimes storytelling is designed to make people uncomfortable, perhaps through language or imagery they don’t make a point to encounter. Literature is supposed to not just entertain us, it supposed to enlighten us, and sometimes it might have to make us angry or embarrassed to get a point across. That might be what those people who had their movies edited missed.

For the Truitts, they really want all three of their children to continue with the private education their kids are getting. The Truitts both work, he at the shipyard and she owns a business. They are Christian and want their children to go to school around other Christian children so they will be “equipped to defend their beliefs when they’re out in the world,” Roland said. They are Republicans who place a high value on personal responsibility, for not relying on government. They have been happy with how Crosspoint officials have been willing to work with them on other issues, such as the possibility of having one of their three children skip a grade. College is an expectation for their children, not a wish. And they think the Crosspoint education supports their efforts to raise their children well, educationally and spiritually.

On the issue of Tom Sawyer, though, they wonder if there is a blind spot.

“I hope that we’re able to work this out,” Naomi Truitt said. “As a family we don’t whitewash past history, but we have discussions about it. That’s all we’re asking for, is a conversation.”

4 thoughts on “Racial terms and the books that are filled with them

  1. By all means, let’s protect the sensitivities of the huddled masses. Let’s whitewash our history and background. Nation building is never a pretty thing, just ask the Indians.
    All this politically correct crap is just that, crap. In coddling the children, we remove the backbone. We they always run home to mama when they read or hear something that might offend them?
    Grow up, get a life, and realize this one fact.

    Not everything in our past was sunshine and unicorns.

  2. While in the planning stages of the Nazi-like burning of classic literature in the name of “God forbid we should ever offend anyone” – be sure not to forget “The Egg And I” by Chimacum’s Betty MacDonald and its treatment of Native Americans.

    And make certain everyone in your car closes their eyes (hopefully not the driver) when, in the course of travelling to/from Port Townsend you pass the Egg and I Road leading from Route 19 (Beaver Valley Road) to the site of the old MacDonald farm, lest they take offence.

  3. History is fact – impossible to white or black out without making “history” a joke, a fable and unreliable. Is that really what any of us want for our kids – to grow up in ignorance or to sway the history teaching of an entire classroom and school in the control of one student and well meaning parents?
    These parents want a conversation – good for them – why can’t they have one with the school and teacher?
    AND – someone else asked – where and when does the school board come in to the conversation?
    Sharon

  4. School Boards approve the curriculum and materials used in classrooms in their district. In the case of books like Tom Sawyer, it was likely approved many years or decades ago. School Boards can hear appeals of curriculum challenges, when a parent is willing to take it all the way to the School Board. That rarely happens.

    In South Kitsap, each school board member has an appointee to the “Instructional Materials Committee”. Before serving on the SKSD Board, I was an appointee of a school board member on the IMC so I am probably more familiar with the process, in SK, than most. The appointee serves on the IMC and keeps the school board member abreast of any potential concerns of materials moving forward. I greatly appreciated the work of my appointees in keeping me informed.

    Ultimately, it is the school board that will decide what is and is not appropriate for the classroom. But, sometimes they don’t know the problem exists until it is pointed out.

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