I’m a proponent of freedom of expression, that authors should be able to write about any topic they please. Partly because I believe in self-expression, but also because I feel that writing about all topics – especially sensitive ones – is a good way to explore them and see them from different angles. I’ll admit, not every controversial book is well-written and I can’t state that all authors have the best intentions. However, at the very least, the controversies spark conversations, and the conversations can lead to education and understanding.
So I was annoyed to see that schools in Burbank, California have decided to ban five books due to concerns over racism. The titles in question are:
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Of Mice and Men
- The Cay
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
The problem, from what I understand, stems from several white students making racists remarks to their black classmates, and when confronted about it claimed they said these things because they’d read them in these books. Understandably, the parents of the black children were upset about this and appealed to the school board to pull these titles from the required reading list.
Okay, I completely get where the parents are coming from on this. They want to protect their children. However, I feel that the problem here doesn’t lie with the content of the books, but in how the books are being taught.
To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, is a story about how a town deals with racism. No, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but it works as a teachable moment. Not all innocent men go free, and the guilty aren’t always punished. In this case, an innocent young black man is convicted of a horrible crime by an all-white jury in a small southern town. It’s not encouraging racism, it’s showing the terrible results of it. Huckleberry Finn is similar in that it shows a period of history where racism was normal and accepted, and how a young man experiences it while having adventures with his friend Jim, a slave. If nothing else, this story is a satire of the attitudes of the time period and a interesting piece of history.
With this situation in the Burbank school district, it appears these messages were lost on the students or possibly not conveyed in a meaningful way. This isn’t the fault of the stories. The anti-racism messages are there. I’ll admit, I’ve only read the first three books on the list, but I did look up the other two in order to have some perspective. To me, it seems like the schools need to reassess how these books are taught. It’s obvious that the students – or at least some of them – came away from these stories with the completely wrong idea.
But even so, instead of banning the books, the schools and parents need to use this as a tool to help their children understand racism, the root causes of it, the history of it, and how we can move beyond it. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I believe that racism stems from fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of the unknown, fear of things that are different. Exposure to different ideas, different cultures, different ideas, and the ability to think critically, are some of the remedies. I know that there are other causes, but I feel these stories can be used as windows to the past, so show children how things used to be and how we can be better than we were.
I’m always anti-censorship, especially when it comes to fiction. I hope the schools in Burbank can reconsider their decision, reinstate these books, and teach them properly. Our future depends on it.