Classic Books Yanked From Virginia County Schools After Parent Complaint

In a divided time, can we afford to read books like "Huck Finn" -- or can we afford not to?
Nancy R. Cohen via Getty Images

Two classic, yet oft-challenged, novels have been temporarily removed from bookshelves at public schools in a Virginia school district.

A student’s mother complained at an Accomack County school board meeting in November that her son, who is biracial, had struggled to read passages containing racial slurs. Superintendent Warren Holland recently informed local news station WAVY-TV that To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had, as a result, been temporarily pulled from the schools.

There’s no denying that the books depict bigoted conduct and offensive language. According to the AP, racial slurs appear 219 times in Huck Finn and 48 times in To Kill a Mockingbird. The American Library Association rank both among the most banned and challenged books in the nation, and no wonder: according to ALA statistics, offensive language is one of the most common motivations for a challenge.

Nonetheless, both books remain widely read and taught in the U.S., for their literary quality and for the manner in which they grapple with the nation’s sordid racial history.

The parent who filed the complaint saw the books differently:

“Right now, we are a nation divided as it is,” the mother is heard saying in an audio recording of the meeting on Nov. 15[...] “So what are we teaching our children? We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means,” the parent said.

While many would agree that racial slurs are unacceptable, this argument contains some troubling assumptions: that reading challenging, provocative texts will further a national divide, and that honest depiction of racial bigotry is the same as acceptance of it. There should, of course, be sensitivity to students who are personally affected by hate speech in their reading, but glossing over the brutal history of America only allows the perpetuating of damaging myths.

Shielding citizens, from youth through adulthood, from the full extent of wrongs perpetrated by Americans and the U.S. government prevents the understanding that could allow for real problem-solving. For example, last year, a survey found that nearly half of Americans don’t believe that the Civil War was primarily motivated by Southerners’ desire to keep slavery, despite a historical consensus that it was. Most Americans don’t support reparations ― or even apologizing for slavery ― and this ignorance about the severity and willfulness of the nation’s past crimes is surely a factor.

“We must know all the facts and hear all the alternatives and listen to all the criticisms,” John F. Kennedy once wrote. “Let us welcome controversial books and controversial authors.” The more different groups sink into different bubbles, reading only preferred news sources ( for one, for the other) and soothing books, the more divided we’ll become ― not less.

“I write to dismantle notions used to build walls that alienate people,” author Nicole Dennis-Benn told HuffPost after the election. Writing and reading things that make us uncomfortable, ashamed, and even angry is a necessary and time-honored part of that process.

Many writers, organizations, and others have spoken out in protest of President-elect Donald Trump’s various comments questioning constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press. This is no time for our citizenry to turn on those values from inside.

In Accomack County Public Schools, the book banning is not, as of now, permanent. WAVY-TV reports that the parent’s request “will now go before a committee made up of a principal, librarian, teacher, parent and potentially others. The committee will then make a recommendation to the superintendent.”

Holland told the station that there’s no set deadline for when the recommendation will be made.

Before You Go

<em>Beloved</em> -- Toni Morrison, 1987

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