Tuesday, July 13, 2010

force non-white students to read "great literature" that demeans them


This is a follow-up to the previous swpd post, in response to many of the readers' comments there.

Here's something that I as a white person can never really know -- what's it like for non-white children when they have to sit through an education system that still normalizes and glorifies white people and white ways, more or less all of the time? A system that also still denigrates the contributions and lived experiences of people of color, more or less all of the time?

How, for instance, do non-white students reconcile what they probably perceive at times as a contradiction, a paradox, when they're being taught that some work of unspokenly white art is "great," and yet they know at some level that it's also racist? And worse yet, that the teacher isn't even acknowledging the racism, and can't even seem to see it?

In a YouTube clip, damali ayo (author of such satiric takes on whiteness as How to Rent a Negro and Obamistan!: Land without Racism) describes her experience in class with the n-word, and with hearing it so many times during discussions of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Embedding of the clip has been "disabled by request," so here's what ayo says while discussing two "n-words," including responses to the word "negro" in her first book's title:

[After the book and web site appeared,] license to use the word "negro" grew dramatically in my life. People started calling me negro all the time, and it's like, "No, you guys, it's satire and, you're not supposed to say that." . . . So like, I have to explain, the idea is that the stuff on the site is as archaic, and as outdated as this word.

I remember being in class and reading To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . and I don't remember what that book is about. No clue, zero.

What I think the book is about is the word "ni**ger-lover," because that's all I heard for like, days on end in my classroom, was the teacher going, "Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**er-lover, ni**er-lover!" And then the kids, "Oh! Ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover, ni**ger-lover!"

And I remember looking at Kim Yates . . . she was badass. And I remember looking across the table at her, and we just, our faces sank. And I started to see the other white kids follow suit. She was older than me, and I didn't know if she was going to do something, so I was just looking at her like, "What do we do?" I think we were both just overwhelmed with the inability to control the situation that was being led by the teacher.


Of course, a lot of other "great literature" -- which by default tends to mean "great white literature" -- that gets taught also has racist effects. Toni Morrison wrote a whole book about that, and I'm sure others have written about it too. In that book, Playing in the Dark, Morrison points out that understanding what's racist about great white literature doesn't necessarily diminish it, nor its authors. Instead, such deeper understandings can enrich the literature, further demonstrating how it represents and illuminates human experience, including racism. In other words, such materials don't need necessarily need to be banned; they can be taught in better ways, and they can also be taught alongside other art, created by people who understand racism differently, and better, because they're not white.

Still, so many teachers continue to handle racist material badly, much to the detriment of students of color. Should teachers no longer subject them, and white students, to great literature that's also racist? Maybe it depends on how they teach it.

At any rate, many are clearly not teaching it well. As swpd commenter Jane Laplain wrote about her own Mockingbird experience,

I remember this was everybody's favorite "Race" book in my highschool english class. That and "Huck Finn." Both of these novels made me feel like I wanted to shrivel up and die, just wordless humiliation. What with the teacher and the kids all crowing about how much they loooooved the message. I could never quite put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable. The protagonists after all were AGAINST racism... shouldn't I be happy about that? I just didn't have the tools to dissect the hidden messages then.

Commenter Bingo offered some suggestions for how to better teach the novel -- these and other methods might help to prevent non-white students from feeling the ways that damali ayo and Jane Laplain did:

If I had to teach TKAM I'd...

1. Use the Innocence Project to show how innocent black men STILL lose their lives and freedom due to racism.

2. Ditto for Oscar Grant and other instances of police brutality.

3. Analyze the similarities between Mel Gibson's recent racist statement and the way the defendant is framed in TKAM.

4. Show how treatment of blacks as animals in the media (i.e. Obama monkey toys) ties into dehumanization of blacks in TKAM -- to Atticus blacks are mockingbirds, in the courtroom the defendant is referred to as a "buck."


It seems to me that teachers (white or non-white) who do such things do so because they're more sensitive to the differing effects that racially charged materials and discussions can have on differently raced students. Hopefully, they're also aware that racism has by no means gone away, and part of what they're ultimately doing as teachers is trying to fight it.


What were your experiences in school with racist white literature, and with other forms of great-but-actually-racist art? Did you have any teachers who handled such materials and discussions especially well? And is there any hope that teachers and the education system in general will do better?


h/t: RVCBard and sanguinity. For more on damali ayo at swpd, see "think that apologizing officially for slavery makes a big difference"; an swpd interview with her; and an insightful excerpt from her book, How to Rent a Negro.

95 comments:

  1. I'm not white or black. I felt like we (South Asian & Muslim) were ignored and barely existent whenever we were required to read American & British literature in junuor high and high school, these books had leading white characters and sometimes offensive black stereotypes. Our teachers barely touched upon classic literary books that contained South Asian, East Asian, and/or Middle Eastern characters. You know, "brown people." We didn't exist.

    That's a different perspective for you.

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  2. Hi, long-time reader, first-time poster:

    I went to a school where they emphasized the black esperience in America, so many of our texts were in fact written by and/or about blackpeople. We read Invisible Man, Native Son, Things Fall Apart, Clotel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Frederick Douglass's autobiography. In this way you could say I was spared many of the experiences of frustration and anger that other people of color might have experienced. Even with my particular education model, college was still an eye-opening experience to me, just because you really see--should you be fortunate enough to be able to afford college and choose to take the right classes--exactly how white our way of teaching just about everything is. I have however since then run into white people who didn't have such an inclusive experience when it came to black narratives. These people sincerely thought that they were "informed" about racism and black history simply because they had read TKAM. I will say right now that I love the book, but I also read it for class in seventh grade and even then it's problems were clear to me despite my enjoyment of it.

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  3. Yeah, I never could get into the book or movie...

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  4. It took me two days to really sit and think about how I feel about this since my initial response was to think that people talking about how TKAM was racist was to write it their opinions off as absurd.

    I honestly don't want to argue the previous post point for point. I could. I probably should, especially as I find some of the claims to be exceedingly far offbase.

    Because, I guess if you want to judge the book by how many times it uses the word n***** and whether the symbolism of mockingbird equals certain individuals in the book or equates black folks to docile songbirds that only serve or even exist at white folks pleasure - then yes, I guess you could say TKAM is a racist book.

    However, having read the book in it's entirety several times in the past few months and having skimmed it again in the past couple of days, I simply cannot adjust my thinking to that which says this book demeans or cheapens what it means to be a black person in this country, then or now.

    It seems to me there are three different reactions to the book. Those who are determined to see only the "good" white folks in the book. These people see TKAM as a feel good message to white people. Much like those who once saw Archie Bunker on "All in the Family" as a lovable old-fashioned character instead of the bigot he truly was; or those who truly believe Stephen Colbert of the "The Colbert Report" is really a conservative in the vein of Bill O'Reilly.

    These people are clueless and cannot be reached. They will always, only and ever see what they want to see.

    The second reaction seems to be those who feel the reaction of the first group is enough to write off the book as racist. If it's not enough to make people see sense, straighten up, fly right and cast off the scales of racism that darken their eyes, then obviously, the book isn't harsh enough, realistic enough or tough enough on racism.

    This group picks the book to pieces and often takes the simplest prose and twists it until it something altogether different from anything that I can imagine the author intended. However it's ridiculously easy to take a few lines and put them in some supposedly "enlightened" context. It's much harder to refrain from over-thinking or misconstruing the author's words and intentions in the effort to prove that her book is unintentionally racist.

    The last group, tends to be the one I belong in. To borrow a phrase from Anne of Greene Gables, these people seem to be of "The Race that Knows Joseph." They intrinsically seem to understand, not only the book, but the subtext and indefinable sense that Atticus describes as not online "standing in another shoes" but also "walking around" in them.

    It means to not only put yourself in the narrator's place. To not only be the author or Scout, or even Atticus. But to be Jem, to be Tom Robinson, to be Mayella Ewell.

    To be the educated but ignorant first grade teacher, the mayor busting his gut and needing his pills when Scout misses her cue for Po-ork! To be Boo Radley or Calpurnia or Miss Maudie or Miss Stephanie. To be Mr. Cunningham. To be Lula wanting to exclude white children from "colored" church and Rev. Sykes in the balcony, waiting, praying.

    To be Tom Robinsons wife, falling into the dust with grief. And to be Tom Robinson himself. The one who helped Mayella Ewell. The one who ran in sickened fear from her father. The one who was certain he would be lynched from a small town jail cell and the one who was shot going over the wall of the large prison.

    I just don't see many people doing that. And maybe it takes reading TKAM as many times as I have to walk around in the shoes of nearly every person and everything in that town from Tim Jonson, the old mad dog shot - to the Mockingbirds that will never be hit by the children's air rifles.

    Or maybe it only takes reading once and understanding that Harper Lee never had all the answers and never pretended she did.

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  5. After all that I said, I think there may be a difference between those, like myself, who read the book alone versus those who were forced to read this book aloud in class.

    Maybe I'm lucky it wasn't on my school's reading list. I suffered enough from those kids. The additional insult would have been hell.

    I still think that stems from people handling the material badly and interpreting it badly. Not necessarily the book itself

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  6. Huck Finn, freshman year. Two of the worst weeks of my life. Honors English and I was the only Black person, the only person of color, in a class of twelve students. The teacher made me read the passages with the word nigger because if the other kids read it, why 'that'd be racist'!

    The fact that throughout my high school education not one single non-white author was read taught me what was what. Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neal Hurston I found and read on my own. I wished they'd been taught to me, because I knew that there was a depth to these books I was reading that my limited knowledge and life experience kept me from understanding fully.

    For those two weeks, and many years afterward, I felt like a "nigger". I never said anything because I thought I'd get in trouble, a bad grade, or worse- that I'd be giving that teacher some sort of satisfaction by objecting or that she'd say worse thing than she'd already said- like that her husband called Black babies niglets. Or asking me why Black people had big noses. She often, during this study of Huck Finn, asked me questions about Black people as if I were the spokesperson for Black people. I always answered with I don't know. It's not that I'd never experienced racism before- it's just that it had never been so blatant and constant before. And I'd never- until that time- had a teacher attack me in such a way.

    When a boy in the class said he found her to be 'ridiculous' and 'racist', that he didn't like how she was treating me and that he hated the book, she sent him to the office. Then, in front of the class said I obviously didn't mind because I hadn't said anything.

    I wanted to cry but didn't, because I thought if I cried, she/they would think that I thought I was, in fact, a nigger.

    To this day, my mom doesn't know this happened. She would've gone crazy on that teacher.

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  7. As a biracial (black/white) woman, I don't remember having particularly positive experiences with racist-but-great texts when I was in school. I remember disliking a lot of texts because of their racist language, and feeling slapped every time the n-word showed up in a book. But I'm an English teacher, so I do think about this topic a lot. My first high school teaching job involved teaching Heart of Darkness, a text which had appalled me as a high-school student because of its language. I was terrified to have to teach this text I despised. But upon rereading it, there was the lyricism and complexity of Conrad's language to consider. And there was the question of whether his critique is effective despite or because of the language he uses in describing Africans. That question led to some great discussions about the unreliability of Marlow and the difficulty of teasing out Conrad's views from Marlow's account. Had I simply refused to teach the text because I objected to the language, my students and I would have missed an opportunity to think about questioning the perspective we're presented with in a text.

    Now I teach at a different school, and one of the texts I've taught in the last year is Huckleberry Finn. I teach Huck Finn in the context of a class that focuses on race in America during and after slavery (the other two texts we read are Beloved and Invisible Man). On the first or second day of class, we sit down to talk about the "n-word." I tell my students my own experience with it. And my (mostly white) students talk about their experiences with the word—how it is taboo for them. That conversation then branches off in several other directions, but is always both uncomfortable and liberating. We certainly don't solve racism in a 70-minute class period, but we do get a sense of where we are as individuals and as a class re: race on the table. These students later raise the question the portrayal of Jim and whether Huck really grows much at all over the course of the novel. We get to talk about why this text is controversial and reflect on our experiences as we read the text. We watch a documentary ("Born to Trouble") about teaching Huck Finn, and we discuss what the best way to approach this text might be. There are plenty of great ways to teach and discuss this text. It seems to me that the best way to teach texts like Huck Finn or TKAM is with attention to, and a calling out of, the ways they might make people uncomfortable. But, given that discomfort, we then have to ask: what is the author trying to say? Does the message come across clearly? Is it effective/persuasive? To whom? Or is it lost because of the way s/he conveys it?

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  8. Growing up in school, I was never required to read anything that demeans blacks. However, most of the literature was mostly written by whites featuring white characters. I'd say about 98% of the material I had to read showcased white authors and white characters. There was hardly anything that resembled blacks or their realities in America aside from "Raisin in the Sun". So, even if there were no stories that showed overt racism, the fact that you still have white literature and history shows racism. It's a way of say to black students that whites contributed almost all of what you've read, and you (blacks) contributed hardly anything.

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  9. Not entirely in context, but appropriately enough, there's a meme floating around the blogosphere at the moment that is supposed to "judge who you write like."

    http://www.codingrobots.com/blog/

    You put in a piece of text you wrote, and then it tells you what famous author you write like.

    There are supposedly 40 authors represented. As far as anyone can tell (since the programmer refuses to release the list), none of them are authors of color.

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  10. @ThatDeborahGirl

    I don't know if you are white, but that was a whole lot of whitesplaining just now.

    I get that you are a huge fan of the book and you've invested much into the characters. So perhaps you are personally invested in this NOT being a racist book because that would mean you had invested in something racist, which would be unacceptable to you.

    None of that changes the fact that the book reifies as many racist assumptions as it challenges.

    We live in a racist society. It is impossible to avoid racism. I'd say the only truly useful measure of racist effect is to gauge how anti-racist it is in comparison to its complicity with a racist reality.

    Sometimes it's impossible to avoid sentimental attachment to racist things, or even racist people. I do not expect white people to stop loving their openly racist white grandmothers. I DO expect so-called antiracist whites to keep in mind that even tho granma may otherwise be a lovely person, her attitude about Race is toxic and unacceptable and NEEDS to be called out as such.

    As a black person, I felt uncomfortable and humiliated reading TKAM in school. DEAL WITH IT. I felt especially humiliated by discussing it in class with all white classmates, or rather, having it discussed all around me at me thru me, nobody once asking MY opinion on the race themes , nobody listening to MY attempted critiques, or the least bit concerned why I wasn't in love with the book's plucky heroine and positive message too.

    My discomfort had very little to do with the use of the word Nigger, eleventy thousand times. That was to be expected of a novel set in the 1930's US, after all. It had everything to do with the abject state of the black characters... as largely voiceless and powerless to resist what was happening, waiting for a sympathetic white person to step in. It had to do with how othered and invisible they ALL were even tho the novel couldn't have been written without them. I got the distinct impression if there had been a way to do just that, write about racism and lynch mobs without actually including ANY black characters, it would have been.

    I was unable to articulate this very well the time, but THAT was the crux of what bothered me. I had no one to explain this to. And the few tries I made at offering this critique were shouted down and dismissed with eyerolls and heavy sighs.

    Granted, my memory of the text isn't anywhere near as fresh as yours. Still, the fact that after 50 years so many POC's have come forward saying things like I'm saying and more... it stands to reason that there is something about the text thats well... Racist.

    That doesn't make it a BAD book, for chrissakes. That doesn't make Harper Lee a failed author. It doesn't make the characters any less relatable or accessible to you or to anyone else who can see themselves in the story. But to those of us who couldn't, we saw a big problem and it's pretty condescending of you to suggest that we simply haven't read it enough to really understand it, or that we expect too much of the author.

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  11. We read "Huck Finn" in my all white honors English class in 11th grade. It took us two weeks. There was no discussion of the use of the 'n word,' no discussion of slavery other than we all agreed that it, like, totally sucked.

    As a somewhat older, 0.0001% wiser adult, this appalls me. Why does a grown man (Jim) have to depend on an adolescent boy? In the book, they are treated as natural companions and equals. This is inappropriate. A grown man and a child are not equals, and I really wish Mr. Miller/my immature self had the nuts (pardon my being crude) to challenge anything about that book.

    Side Note: My father read Huck Finn to me when I was about 6 or 7. He said that the n word was used, and I was never to say it, because it would remind people of slavery and discrimination. Baby stuff for a little girl, but still more than my teacher said to a group of 16-17 year olds.

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  12. I think about this all the time. I've made several comments about it here, and it's something I've chosen a while ago to protest and to refuse as I become an English teacher. I genuinely believe this is the reason I want to become a teacher. MANY things need to change

    It's not ok to inflict abuse on our students - and I think this is abusive. It is detrimental to the wellbeing and emotional health of students of color to be placed in a classroom where not only are they not seeing themselves or being seen as important parts of our country, not having their experiences valued the way white students are, but every time they're represented in a book they're being shown as slaves, stupid, childlike, violent, buffoons or generally "other". We are supposed to protect *all* of our students and make sure they feel empowered. What's still going on here is unbelievably awful.

    It's the most visible form of institutionalized racism - it's highly visible and ignored because whites still hold the power, and the education system in the US is incredibly political and more corrupt that most would care to wrap their minds around.

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  13. Thanks, Jane. To Deborah, Jane hit it: think about your/my White grandmother. I can and do love my relatives even though they are imperfect. To recognize imperfections is not to stop loving someone. And to react like you are to someone who has a different reaction from you to a book suggests some kind of problem. Can you seriously not put yourself in the place of a young person in a classroom who is feeling demeaned by a discussion around her? Are you really that self-involved that you imagine your subjectivity is the only one possible to any enlightened human being?

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  14. In the previous thread, I advocated for at least bringing up the existence of these books and explaining whats wrong with them. The idea being, that if you just ban them, (White) kids will seek them out just because they're banned, and take home the wrong message (since the problem with TKAM isn't just that it contains the n-word).

    But having read @haniler's post about the racist (and also clearly incompetent) teacher, I'm not so sure that would work, and it would probably backfire just as badly.

    The approach described by @Larissa (having a conversation about the n-word on the first day or two of class) seems reasonable, but I could either see that backfiring, or worse being prohibited by reactionary principals or school boards who think that the best way of dealing with racism is to pretend it doesn't exist.

    When we read Huck Finn (10th grade), our teacher said when we were reading passages out loud that contained the n-word, we could either read it as written, or say "n-word", or just omit the n-word altogether. It made for some awkward situations as everyone stumbled over the passages. I don't know whether it was better than doing nothing at all, but it made it feel even more like there was an elephant in the room.

    Certainly altering the reading list would help a lot. But I hope that school districts don't see that as a "quick fix". In my junior high and high school years (private school, 7 Black kids and 2 Hispanic/Latino kids in a graduating class of 57 students), we read TKAM and Huck Finn, but we also read Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Black Boy, a number of Langston Hughes' poems (no, not just "A Dream Deferred"), The House on Mango Street, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Beloved, and a lot more. Yet that didn't make reading Huck Finn any less awkward. Nor did it encourage my 10th grade teacher to actually help us understand what was wrong with the book, because like TKAM, it's not just the issue of the n-word. (I'm not trying to downplay the issue of the n-word, but if you deleted every occurrence of the n-word in TKAM, it wouldn't eliminate the White savior issue, obviously).

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  15. Now that I've had time to read through the comments, Deborah, your comment is a bit distressing because you seem to be suggesting that you understand better and are a better, deeper reader than anyone who takes issue with the book.

    This is a tough subject for me, because I, too, read TKAM outside of class, on my own, and it was one of my favorite books when I was young. And while I could make arguments for it, the fact of the matter is that even if I can come up with a reasonable defense of Harper Lee's story, that doesn't mean there aren't kids sitting in high school classes who are feeling demeaned or dehumanized because this book is on the docket. And you're saying that if they were just better readers, or had better teachers, they would understand why not to be dehumanized. And that's pretty condescending.

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  16. Junior year of high school, I vividly remember my cheeks burning (as first generation Nigerian immigrant) when people were reading passages of Conrad's Heart of Darkness out loud. I also remember to not being able to voice any comments I had about the book although my English teacher always kept giving me, the only African American in the class, meaningful looks. I couldn't say anything, as in something physically wasn't letting me. I can't say whether it was shame or embarrassment that choked my voice.

    To be honest I only have a vague idea what the book was about. My mind was caught up in the hateful and ignorant descriptions of the Africans and at the time I couldn't really "read past" or "over" things like that, nor do I think that I should have been expected to do so (not to say that such expectations were made explicit, but I think that having a race or racism discussion, especially if you are the only person of color in a classroom, is something that (at least a high school student) is actively avoided).

    Only at the end of the semester, when my teacher wanted feedback on the books we'd read was I able to say how hard it was from my perspective to understand a book that could, with such vivid racism and hate, degrade people like me (my ancestors and in a way myself). The bell rang, and my professor said he wished that we had actually talked about that in class.

    While I have developed into a person who has no problem voicing my opinion in any type of situation, that growth and development has only occurred in the past couple of months (I am currently a second year undergraduate).

    I think that books that are valued in the white/English/American-literary-tradition, but are racist, can still be read and taught in the classroom, but they will definitely have to be taught from a multi-cultural perspective, which means talking about racism and facing the possibility that we (as a society) WILL have to be MUCH more critical of such works, and maybe even re-examine the esteem to which we hold them. Personally I think that these books are taught to and for white students, at least in most primary school settings (given as so often the issues that they raise for student of color are easily overlooked or swept under the rug of "the past" or "historically culturally acceptable language").

    All in all, these books can be taught, but like has been previously stated, from a perspective of those who understand racism differently (or even those who just grasp that different students can/will interpret/see/understand things differently even behind the keen double consciousness they have developed). However, looking at the peers I left behind in high school and some of the absolutely ridiculous things they've said/believed (a classmate was annoyed why "that yam book" -Achebe's Things Fall Apart was included in a world literature curriculum) I am a bit doubtful if such a perspective in American mindset, is going to happen anytime soon. But I am a pessimist....a very very stringent realist

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  17. I love books, I love reading.
    I'd say 98% of the classics leave me wanting to physically retch.

    Its so obvious they were not written for me, nor for me to casually enjoy. They routinely dehumanise black people even when the story has nothing to do with blackness or black people, they simple use black people as a frame of reference for inhuman, dumb, slovenly, lazy, despicable descriptors.

    Every single book I have re-read in the last year has hit a point where the story is destroyed for me

    Tolstoy- in the middle of talking about Russia, introduces blackness as some disgusting nonentity
    Doestoevski - same thing

    DH Lawrence - in lady chatterly's lover - For no damn reasons starts talking about black men and their stone like noble faces, carved from blah blah blah.... and then of to cap it off, for some unknown reason D.H Lawrence decides that women don't like sex, except Black women who of course love it, BUT apparently we are 'mud' and we don't count O_O

    For my sins I bought Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is the only book I have ever given up on after 10pages. The ridiculousness of that book was soo unnerving..

    Joseph Conrad - Heart of darkness made me physically want to retch.

    Oh and Bulgakov - the master and marguerite - destroyed by the ordinary/stereotypical role cast of 'the blacks'.

    The one that hurt me the most - was the count of monte cristo. Beautiful story, there was just absolutely no need to completely dehumanise the black character and reduce him to a simpleton who would give his life to the man who agreed to cut off his tongue.
    This man who was reduced to a dumb genuis. too dumb to give a shit about himself but such genuis that he knew and could predict his 'masters' wants and needs before they were uttered.

    This dumb black servant without the aid of a tongue, could negotiate, buy and prepare a mansion countries across the globe, but he was 'slovenly', lazy, and dumb.

    There is not a single classic book that I have been able to read int he last year which has not made me feel physically ill.
    The utter contempt, the disgust, the condemnation, the degradation used to describe black people and blackness is utterly sickening.

    Yet, I have had people say .. 'oh well, it was a different time, you should just accept it' and read the book with an open mind.

    Not one of these people would ever consider paying for, and ingesting a book which dehumanises them. They would condemn it.

    For respite from the deluge of literature describing my inhumanity, mud like qualities, insatiable sexual desires, I sometimes just sink into the world of fantasy (comic books) and even then I can't seem to escape it.

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  18. My English teacher the year we read Brave New World (9th? 10th?) was half Diné (Navajo), half white. BNW was required reading for all the classes in our grade, but I think we got, um, a slightly different presentation of it.

    For those of you not super-familiar with this book, the beginning sets up a sci-fi dystopia; the second half introduces, inexplicably, a Native American character who epitomizes the Noble Savage stereotype and is used basically to illustrate how corrupt "regular" society is, and of course he can't survive in that society--he's too pure and good (...noble) for it.

    My teacher was not so much a fan.

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  19. My mom had one helluva of an experience regarding this subject. In high school they were reading Mark Twain in an English class. Everyone had to read out loud. My maternal grandfather did not allow the word nigger to be used in our household. That was a standing rule. My mom decided that when it was her turn she would read but just skip over the word. She started reading out loud and she skipped the word and continue to read. The teacher stopped her and told her that she skipped the word. My mother acknowledged that she did just that. The teacher insisted that she read the text as it was written. My mom flat out refused. She told the teacher that her father did not allow her to use that word and she wasn't going to say it at school either. This got my mother sent to the office.

    When my grandfather came home from work and learned about what happened he was angry. He didn't go to the school-he went to the board of education. He laid out his complaint and made it very plain that his daughter would not be using that word. Then he challenged the officials for deeming that story classic literature.

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  20. @haniler - that is truly, truly awful. I'm so sorry that happened to you.

    I don't remember what year we read Huck Finn or TKAM, but I grew up in the southwest US and remember thinking that people using the n-word or treating the characters of color in the book was a "back in those days" sort of thing and "well, it's set in the South and therefore more racist" there. Which is...pretty sheltered and privileged, but kind of common, I think.

    My parents would have been appalled if I'd used a racial slur and I didn't hear that language in school either (my school was maybe 50 percent white, 40 percent hispanic and 10 percent black) among the kids, and we all played with each other and didn't have conflicts over race that I heard about, so it was actually shocking to come across the language in books. I don't remember TKAM being read in class aloud, but kids hesitated over saying the n-word in Huck Finn.

    (I did hear openly racist comments later, but aimed at Native Americans, primarily -- the more-commonly affected by segregtion group in that area.)

    We didn't read anything in school by African-American writers that I recall. (This would be in the early 80s.)

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  21. I've had 2 incidents I can recall.

    The first was when my English teacher in college decided to assign us readings by Karen Blixen (Isaak Dinesen) and kept on gushing how great a writer she was. I'm Kenyan, I hate Isaak Dinesen with a passion, and I decided to explain to the teacher why I didn't think she was a great writer. Here is what Dinesen wrote about Kikuyus (a tribe in Kenya of which I am a member)


    The dark nations of Africa, strikingly precocious as young children, seemed to come to a standstill in their mental growth at different ages.  The Kikuyu, Kawirondo and Wakamba, the people who worked for me on the farm, in early childhood were far ahead of the white children of the same age, but the stopped quite suddenly at a stage corresponding to that of a European child of nine.


    The professor just couldn't see my point, and gave me a bad grade as revenge (in her words, I had to be impartial and read the articles as is rather than introduce politics and political correctness) This was in the early 90's I didn't have enough confidence to challenge my grade. And the other readings she has assigned were subtly racists, the passage above is just one that was very obvious.

    The sad irony is that the high school I went to is in an area called Karen, named after Karen Blixen, and there is a Karen Blixen museum (which I'd love to raze to the ground). For anyone who knows Kenya, Karen is an area in the Nairobi suburbs that is wealthy, and used to be majority white. Even now, there is a bar there that reputedly will not serve black people (Marco Polo). You can walk in, but good luck ordering a drink or getting service. This in a majority black country. But I digress, I have good reason for hating Isaak Dinesen.

    When I went back to college, for an urban studies class we were assigned The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, an otherwise great book until towards the end you run into an incredibly virulently racist section. I mentioned this section in my critique and the professor to her credit didn't penalize me and in fact told me that weren't the book otherwise excellent in illustrating issues facing immigrants in early America, she would have dropped it from the class. It was an online class but I wish it had been on site. I would have loved to see whether my critique would have spurred a larger discussion. The class was one of the best classes I've ever taken, but that section of the book was fly in the ointment.

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  22. I identify as white, and I'm very aware that it is a SPWD trope to claim Native ancestry, but I should preface this by saying that my grandfather was half American Indian. I was raised in my grandparents' house, and was told of this ancestry, and it was emphasized pridefully. I think this is example, and why I noticed this and was so upset by it...

    When we read Steinbeck's The Pearl in 8th grade, it pissed me right off. I was astonished by how severely the main character was punished.

    My memories are foggy, because it was quite a while ago that we read it (and it revolted me so much that I've no desire to re-read it), so forgive me if my interpretation is wrong, but all I remember is being amazingly frustrated that this Native man was being severely-- as in, his whole life is destroyed, his baby killed-- because he was trying to advance. Like he didn't "know his place."

    I just did some wiki research, and I found out that it's actually based on a Mexican folk tale. Now I'm even more baffled, because my sophomore English teacher taught the book as if he were American Indian. Either way, he's Native, and he didn't "know his place." My teacher couldn't figure out why I hated it so much. This was the same teacher that had us read TKAM-- which I just thought was dull, at the time. I was too dumb and naive to understand its racism-- and my privilege afforded me not to.

    Fortunately, later English teachers I had were better. I remember that we read Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, and watched A Raisin in the Sun. My 11th grade English teacher in particular was pretty decent; probably, a bit more than a third of the things we read were by white people. She didn't take any crap when her (nearly all-white) pupils called attention to the strong nonwhite presence in her curriculum. I figured that this was the norm! I'm frustrated so many schools get away with such blindingly racist curricula.

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  23. Soul said...
    “Its so obvious they were not written for me, nor for me to casually enjoy. They routinely dehumanise black people even when the story has nothing to do with blackness or black people, they simple use black people as a frame of reference for inhuman, dumb, slovenly, lazy, despicable descriptors.”

    So true…we are stage props and plot devices nothing more. Its no surprise whites romanticize these particular works, for it speaks to the nobility of the individual. Much in the same context popular media is framed and targeted towards whites every day. Very few narratives written by whites speak directly to us without the inclusion of some significant ‘white other’ to move the story along. The one inescapable truth that seems to haunt me no matter how much I try to discount it is that white people have changed very little over the past 400 years.

    Is it a wonder Frederick Douglass voiced disgust at the observance of July 4th? In tandem we Poc regard the pedigree of white literature with the same reproachful eye. Annals of time have conditioned whites to be woefully narcissistic; concerned primarily with their own importance. The archetype of everything that is noble and pure; quick to venerate almost anything that walks except when it pertains to non-whites. Volumes written by whites for ‘white consumption’ and since our arrival on these shores non-whites have been forced-fed a perpetual diet of white self-love since this nation’s infancy.

    As someone alluded to me in a correspondence, “White Americans tend to think that life for black Americans and other POC is pretty much like it is for them.” So conversely, whites pen works of fiction that either denigrates blacks or excludes them altogether and then marvel at the social fallout.

    Soul said...
    “For respite from the deluge of literature describing my inhumanity, mud like qualities, insatiable sexual desires, I sometimes just sink into the world of fantasy (comic books) and even then I can't seem to escape it.”

    Most comics are written from an ingrained white male perspective that only whites can be heroes. In one review for ‘Iron Man 2’ the white critic tried to cover every aspect of the film’s plot, lauding each actor for his/her respective role; except he left out the part involving War Machine. Don Cheadle’s character; you know... the black guy. A total of 32 comments were logged discussing action sequences, or how hot Scarlett Johansson was; but no one..not one, mentioned the black guy.

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  24. "In that book, Playing in the Dark, Morrison points out that understanding what's racist about great white literature doesn't necessarily diminish it, nor its authors. Instead, such deeper understandings can enrich the literature, further demonstrating how it represents and illuminates human experience, including racism."

    I really like this. Kind of reminds me how white people, when you point out their unintentional racism, will often just shut down and refuse to listen to you, because they think that being complicit in white supremacy automatically makes them a horrible and worthless person (I'm speaking of the "liberal" white racist). You get a similar response from them when a book is "accused" of being racist.

    Just because a book is a great piece of art doesn't make it appropriate for the class room, especially if it is demeaning to children of color.

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  25. @Willow
    My memory of Brave New World is fuzzy, but not only did I hate for the seemingly entirely white world (that there alone makes it a dsytopia for me), the I think supposed Native Americans where or could have been white people playing (the white people's version of) Native American. That and there's a scene at the movie theatre of what felt like some sort of futuristic Birth of Nation movie was playing.

    @soul
    Amen. Pratically on the exact same wavelength with you and found myself thrown up against the exact same walls in reading all those books you brought up. Dumas' work can feel extremely saddening/frustrating for me given who he is.

    @Jane
    As a black person, I felt uncomfortable and humiliated reading TKAM in school. DEAL WITH IT. I felt especially humiliated by discussing it in class with all white classmates, or rather, having it discussed all around me at me thru me, nobody once asking MY opinion on the race themes , nobody listening to MY attempted critiques, or the least bit concerned why I wasn't in love with the book's plucky heroine and positive message too.""

    Bolded for emphasis. Maddening throughout my entire college career--my first time in a long-term, white majority school setting. And that eventually expanded into oppression reifying problems too (sexism, homophobia, etc.) as the school years wore on. Doesn't seem to have stop either when people wanna discuss a book with you in a more non-classroom, social setting.

    Always want to break out a cluebat or the strangle hands when their objection to your offense or objection is just that you didn't understand the work well enough as they do. Apparently that somehow erases any and all offense in the writing.

    I'm personally of the mindset is that in spite of the flaws and faults of a book (which were always there to begin with regardless of how "great" the book is) if it is no longer rightly serving purpose or meeting educational goals then it should likely be let go. Sure it can still exist along the periphery, but for the most part there are other work--contemporary and non-contemporary to it--that can be of much better in a curriculum.

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  26. I was about 13 or so when I discovered Agatha Christie's '10 little n*****s' renamed '10 little Indians' I am 23 now and all I could remember was mortifying shock and disparaging heartbreak as I have always loved her mysteries (especially the 'Poirot' series). I tried to reason in my head that in HER time that word was quite loosely used to describe blacks and was more acceptable, but it lent little VERY little comfort.

    I was so disappointed and afterwards never wanted to read anything of hers again because it was as if I had a degree of trust in her and she'd betrayed me.

    I had learned much of the European culture through her words and many other white authors such as Edward Gorey, Kurt Vonnegut and many others. They all swept me away from the oppressing reality that surrounds me as a POC into their worlds of white fantasy and liberty to do and say whatever, whenever. I could for a minute forget my blackness without hazard and imagine myself as one of the characters in their stories. Most of all, they challenged me to think past terms of race and color. Those authors in particular wrote stories that bore messages and philosophies that were transcendent and universal.

    Therefore, I always liked to read things by white authors because I feel it somewhat bridges a gap, to be able to explore ideas that would otherwise not be disclosed to me by any white person on the street or in the classroom and to feel as though I could be apart of all the things that I could never be apart of in the real world was always something of an escape.

    However, I do remember there being a physical confrontation during our TKMB reading assignment. One of the white students had used the 'N' word quite freely and out loud in the middle of class. The teacher ordered for him to apologize immediately before the class. This was when I was in the 9th grade.

    Also, I live in the south, of course. If that lends to some insight to the insanity.

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  27. "What were your experiences in school with racist white literature, and with other forms of great-but-actually-racist art? Did you have any teachers who handled such materials and discussions especially well? "

    This may be slightly off topic but it reminded me of something that happen to me last semester( I'm a grad student)...

    We were assigned a reading about Buddhism. The author of this article made a comment about how the people who migrated to INDia were the same as the readers of his article. He describe them as either " Aryan" or Indo-European" I cant recall exact wording or the author. What I do remember was being completely disinterested in the piece from that point on. The article was boring anyway and the author had just told me that " I wasn't reading it anyway." Good, Im off the hook only people like him are readers...

    Anyway, I brought this up in class. I feel uncomfortable do so because I was the only black student in the class. There is one latino in the class ( the only other POC in my degree). But he is only of those, " I don't see through the lens of race" people.

    So I knew I might be walking into a wall by saying anything,. However, teacher did back me up. She add that the author was an orientalist and that he was ignoring native indians ( in India) in his description.

    SO i left feeling good about the experience UNTIL I was out to lunch with other students ( my close friends also)and a white student from that class said that when ppl brings these things up that he reminds them that like our founding fathers " they are a product of their times." because I hate that derailment more than anything. This lead to a debate where ( me fighting against that excuse) and him ( defending it)... the two other white students backed him up and my Biracial friend tried to play devil advocate ( he later tried to comfort me after the fight was over)... But it ended with me thinking " why do I bother".

    The whole thing left me wondering...

    If I haven't brought it out would someone else have?

    Is it better for teachers to bring up the subject esp if they are white? Allies are listened to differently it seems

    How can POC bring up problems with literature, authors, historical figures, how history is taught in and outside of the class when so many derailments are used by white students and in many cases teachers?


    Why are Americans so quick to forgive and forgot the past ( product of their times) and avoid seeing how history effects us today?

    I see why grade school students feel so uncomfortable because I still feel that way I am adult.

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  28. First off, I completely agree with soul who said that a lot of "classic literature" has a way of inserting race in a way that makes you uncomfortable. I totally agree here. A lot of
    "Great Books" (I hate that term) have racism (and sexism, and homophobia, and so on) even when they have nothing to do with race. Even when all the characters are white in all-white places, there has to be a comment about black people being like this or native americans being like that... not only is it offensive and demeaning, but it's just so wtf. Nobody I know has ever talked about this or pointed it out - your the first person I know to point it out, really. So yeah, I'm in total agreement with you on that.

    @baiskeli: I looked up "Karen Blixen racism" on Google because I had heard of "Out of Africa" before and found this:
    http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Impact-Of-Allegorical-Animals---Was-Karen-Blixen-Isak-Dinesen-A-Racist?&id=693494
    Besides the title, it fails in another way. The article says that when she compares people to animals, it's not because she's demeaning to them - it's because she has an affectionate place in her heart for them or something. After having read what you said about her, this paragraph was particularly scary:

    "The Kikuyus who have been enslaved, and who have reputedly hunted down and sold each other, are being compared to farm animals, but more to describe their relationship with each other than anything else. One must admit that the Somalis and Masai are her favourites, yes, even human ideals with her, but she has a soft spot for the Kikuyus and she is not derogatory of them when she compares them to rodents which just are another kind of free animals. In their relationship with each other she sees the Somalis as faithful sheepdogs guarding the valuable sheep, i.e. the Kikuyu."

    Discussions about race in our literature class last year were pretty fruitless, imo. Our class is majority Hispanic (I think most are white, but I'm not sure) with one biracial girl who had both black and white heritage which I will call Janice, and two girls who would qualify as white in "the north" (although many of us considered ourselves white, we'd be more likely to be called "hispanic" or "latino" in the more northernly states), one which I will call Alexa. We read two books by black authors: A Raisin in the Sun and When Rain Clouds Gather.

    Although we actually discussed race a lot (and by we, I mean myself, Janice, and another girl), I don't think the class got any of it or related to any of it. We live in a city where the majority is Hispanic - "white" people are a minority here. I doubt that my classmates have experienced direct racism. As such, our conversations came to nothing.

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  29. my 10th grade Honors American Literature class was nothing but a pain in the ass due to the fact that I was the only person of color in my class of 12 students. We read Huck Fin, Tom Sawyer etc. It made my stomach crawl. The worst was the day they decided to have a "read off"

    My teacher and a student decided to both do their renditions of Jim's lines with full on accent. The student won by the way, and I just sat there with my jaw on the desk. They always wondered why I separated myself in the class. I literally sat apart from everyone else. smh.

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  30. It seems like the biggest problem here is that for the majority of American history, writers with the means to get published wrote for an exclusively white audience.

    We're talking about Harper Lee and Mark Twain because they wrote about race, but in terms of intended audience, the same problem applies to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ben Franklin, Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, etc. I think it's pretty clear that Frederick Douglass wrote his Autobiography for a white audience too. [note to self: all the authors that first came to mind are men. Hmm.]

    The problem is everywhere. I really don't see a solution for teaching American literature/history other than to teach these books, say they're racist (in terms of both content and who the authors believe would/should access the literature), and give historical context. Shrug.

    Honestly, I'm more interested to hear the stories of people here who felt uncomfortable and silenced in high school English classes, and if there are any pedagogical methods that worked particularly well in encouraging you to speak up and make your concerns heard.

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  31. I thought I'd posted enough around here for people to know that I'm Black. Not to mention I pretty generally leave my url to my blog with my picture on it. Despite having some measure of light skinned privilege, I assure you that, as an African American woman, I am more than capable of putting myself in those student's shoes.

    Reading, for me, has always been more of a solitary pursuit. I never felt literature we went over in class had much merit for me and I generally learned just enough from the cliff notes to get me a passing grade.

    I'll never forget how, when first reading the Little House on the Prairie series and coming to the part about the minstrel show and how they just loved the performance of the "darkies". Or how Ma consistently hates Indians throughout the entire novel. And how Almanzo declare his independence by saying that he was "free, white and 21."

    Somehow that seemed much worse to me than the word "nigger" in either "Huck Finn" or "To Kill a Mockingbird." But in all cases, each seems to be a fairly accurate representation of the time each author portrayed.

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  32. I would have to say the worse thing about reading some of these texts in high school was the way that the teacher handled them. Usually it was with total apathy.

    When I was a senior, we read a play (the name escapes me) about a really dysfunctional black family set sometime in the in 50's/60's. The entire play used every stereotype imaginable about blacks - lazy, promiscuous, stupid, immoral and physically aggressive yet hopelessly passive. Mind you this (with the exception of TKAM) was the only text we read during our two-year A.P. Lit experience that even remotely focused on black people (or non-whites in general).

    Anyway, our teacher required that we all take turns reading passages. My class was full of upper-middle-class white kids. I and another girl were the only black students. The white kids took GREAT pleasure in reading this play, saying the n-word and overall using the awful "ebonics" this text was written in. Seriously. There were giggles, gasps, and huge entertained smiles the entire 2 weeks we read this crap. It was ridiculous. My teacher pretended not to notice, but every time one of those kids perked up to read the part of the the dead beat "jive talking" father, the sassy mule-like mother, or the delinquent son I wanted to die.

    Two years of A.P. Lit and the ONLY book we read that was not centered around white characters and their experiences was a complete joke to the students and apparently the teacher, too.

    By the way, we read Brave New World earlier in the year, and I absolutely refused to finish reading it. THAT book and all of the praise the entire class heaped onto it made me want to puke.

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  33. How do you answer a question that in essence is more than just about the subject at hand? How often is Tyler Perry not living a TKAM moment. DO people not see his portrayal of people who do exist in the black community(in large numbers at that) as just as racist, and negatively stereotypical. Richard Pryor the Comic genius how many times did he and Paul Mooney have to face their TKAM moments as they tried to push the envelope and expose us to the world as they saw it at the same time bringing up dirty laundry.

    Racism is racism, no one is left clean in the discussion because how do you fight something that spreads so quickly and easily. Oh you don't use the N-word as often, how many Illegals have you spit out lately, or anchor babies, or undesirables, those people, welfare moms, lazy, yadda yadda yadda. Racism is a chameleon both it's prey and it's appearance change as the situation requires.

    Carlos Mencia used to have a joke If I go to cali what am I:mexican, if I go to florida: Cuban, If I go to new york:Puerto rican. What if you have Red Hair and freckles, does that mean you automatically want to knock back a pint or 3 at the pub? Pointy Nose tanned skin, stringy hair does that mean you automatically want pasta? Slightly darker perhaps and a scraggly beard does that mean you want baklava? How about if you look like that and work at a 24 hour convenience store does that mean Ghandi might be a distant relative?

    We are who we were brought up to be, we have absorbed the prejudices and ignorance of the world around us. Some things we decide are unacceptable, others because we like them we protect because we like them and to allow them to be painted in the same light as that we find unacceptable diminishes us as well, or does it.

    Can we not accept that while we have found some good in something that it too has its flaws, and that while to us said flaws are acceptable that to others they are not. That said item may have done more harm to someone else then it may have done to us. It is human nature to fight for not only what we believe in, but for what we like, sometimes though we need to be willing to listen to others because that is the only way we can expand our horizons.

    The problem with discussions on racism is simple instead of people having to spend more time defending being racist folks have to spend inordinate amounts of time defending exposing something as racist. Isn't that silly, why is it more wrong to call someone a racist, decry the abhorrent behavior and say "while I will respect your right to speak freely I will also observe my own right to freely speak and you had better respect it as I rebut the stupidity." Than it is to BE racist, to do something that is abominable, distasteful and just wrong regardless of your level of morality.

    Oh wait I know because most likely you yourself will not be a victim of said behavior and attitude as long as you stay well within guidelines you probably already observe anyway. I mean for white males just don't take up for some minority too often, for white females don't date outside the race. While you can be philanthropic don't bring your projects home too often. Make sure you don't take to long to laugh at the jokes that you would be uncomfortable saying if a person of the minority group in the joke happened to be in earshot.

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  34. This is one of the (many) reasons my husband and I are considering homeschooling our daughter: not only will we be able to ensure that she reads as many works by authors of color as she would by whites (if not more), but we'll be able to discuss the problematic racial content with her in a way that is compassionate and centers her own humanity.

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  35. @ThatDeborahGirl

    Yeah, I was pretty confused as I could have sworn you were POC. But as i said, what you posted was a lot of "whitesplaining." So, imagine my shock.

    I still stand by my response to you. I felt that the author's own racism manifested itself in the way she wrote about the black characters. And I didn't read it in class I read it alone at home over the summer in preparation for the start of the semester. I still felt that "weirdness" in my stomach. I can agree with you 100% that the book was an accurate representation of white attitudes of the time. All the same, the race themes alienated me because of the "othering" subtext. YOU were able to overlook it or not let it bother you. I wasn't. Both our experiences are valid. Neither eliminates the racism present in the book, both overt and covert.

    And let me tell you something. I love me some Bewitched. I spent many MANY days, nay years, daydreaming about living in that world, being those characters. The themes of "mixed marriage" and "racial othering" weren't lost on me even in childhood. Neither was the fact that I could count the episodes on one hand where they had a black person, and still have three fingers left over. Or how they painted white actresses to look asian for certain shows. Bewitched was White Supremacist as all get-out, even as they co-opted themes of racial tolerance as a premise. I will forever love ALL the characters and actors to my dying day. I am black. What does that mean?

    It means that I couldn't escape forming emotional attachments to certain American mainstream cultural phenomena, racist or no.

    TKAM is racist because it is full of uninterrogated white supremacist subtext. I really don't see how there is any arguing with this point. I get the feeling that too many of us are loathe to call a thing racist if it isn't about actively hating on POC's or using the N-word. The root of racism is cultural white supremacy, so again wherever you have that, you have racism.

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  36. My US History teacher gave me a better perspective on white literature than any of my high school English teachers. He was wonderful at placing excerpts from literature and primary historical documents in context - never denying the racist intent or minimizing it by emphasizing the racist society but illustrating how deeply racism is rooted in American culture and why those perspectives are seen as valid.

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  37. @ Will

    Honestly, I'm more interested to hear the stories of people here who felt uncomfortable and silenced in high school English classes, and if there are any pedagogical methods that worked particularly well in encouraging you to speak up and make your concerns heard.

    There wasn't any class I didn't feel this way, save for math classes. But as far as English, it was all pretty silencing. Like many other readers here I refused to read or engage with Heart of Darkness. I was already pretty bored with The Awakening, when suddenly they introduced a "quadroon" maid character for no reason.

    Probably the most silencing thing was studying Othello, and the way the English teacher constructed the class discussions, you would never have known that the text had anything at all to do with Race. One of the students brought up Othello being black. The teacher had the wherewithal to say that the concept of Race as we know it wasn't even formed during Shakespeare's time, and she even went on to explain the history of race a little. But it was all to the end of avoiding discussion of Othello's treatment as a "Moor." I didn't know how to feel about that, honestly. On one level I appreciated the racial de-emphasis, knowing it would have just been another chance for the white kids to practice their Arsenio Hall impressions. On the other hand, I felt like discussing race was always taboo and always being avoided, except to say its bad and "We" don't believe in that anymore.

    I was pretty bad at speaking up against supremacist nonsense in highschool. I didn't develop this skill until well after college, honestly. I imagine it would have helped to have braver teachers who were SKILLED enough to keep control of a classrom when discussing race with a bunch of kids, all but one or two of them white. THAT would have helped me feel more confident for sure.

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  38. Heart of Darkness. nuff said.

    I remember discussin TEWWG. There was a very racist student whose paper discussed why she "sympathized" with Mrs Turner.

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  39. @ Will

    "I really don't see a solution for teaching American literature/history other than to teach these books, say they're racist (in terms of both content and who the authors believe would/should access the literature), and give historical context."

    I fully agree. I intend to do this if I'm ever faced with having to teach something racist or anything that goes completely against what students will need to know in the real world.

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  40. I know this is slightly off topic, however, reading this post and the comments brought to mind a certain school assignment. I went to school in a predominately European(white) school. My mother, a college graduate, always said that they couldn't teach around me and made sure I got a stellar education. In and OUT of school.

    Anyways, one of my teachers had this "brilliant" idea for a project for AP History. See who trace their ancestry back the farthest..and give a detailed fictional account of the life of the persons we found.

    I was so angry that I went home and with the Devil on my shoulder typed this =

    "1 Angolan Slave = To be traded for a barrel of rum. Physically capable with no apparent work hindrances. No visible marks of past or present disease. Dental integrity, checked. Captured with two suckers of male and female gender. Ages around 2 and 9. Sold upon arrival."

    I expected to be called in, chastised and given a low grade. At the end of the day, I was called in to see her from another class. To her credit, she apologized and gave me and everyone else an "A", then sat down and explained why she was doing this and how, in her ignorance, she had made a callous and racist error.

    It made me feel like a human being. More than I could say for my elementary school teacher who made me stay in during recess because I wrote such an "exceptionally eloquent" paper the first day of class and didn't believe I could possibly had written something of that caliber.

    *sigh*

    Sometimes reading these posts are like ripping a scab off a wound.

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  41. @ haniler

    I'm so sorry that happened to you. I've had some verbally abusive teachers but never any that attacked me and mine in such an overt racist manner.

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  42. Placamal: Wow! I definitely wouldn't have had the balls to do something like that in high school. It sucks that you had to do it, but you handled that amazingly well.

    I also got the "My first thought was you couldn't have written this" comment by my English teacher in the first week of 9th grade. I'd forgotten that it ever happened until you mentioned it, and he was my favorite teacher ever in high school. Ugh.

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  43. Granted, my memory of the text isn't anywhere near as fresh as yours. Still, the fact that after 50 years so many POC's have come forward saying things like I'm saying and more... it stands to reason that there is something about the text thats well... Racist.


    There are so many things I want to say. So many things I want to debate, argue, defend. But I don't have the time or energy, and more unforgivably, the patience or wisdom.

    So out of all the points made about what I posted, I'm going to address two.

    @ Jane Laplain - I am patently angered and offended by being written off and accused of "whitesplaining." It irks me in a narrow spot of my soul that is always scratched, in parallel, when white people tell me "I'm playing the race card." I think you should seriously rethink using that term. I may be mistaken, but I don't think you use that term as a means to be constructive, but hurtful and dissmissive.

    It still seems to me that the majority of the comments deal with how the material was handled in a classroom setting; with teachers who thought they were competent to handle the material and, as is proof of the lingering bad memories of so many, were not.

    I don't find the book to be as dismissive and backward about the black community in the book as you seem to. I find the dearth of black characters fairly reasonable considering the sheltered life of the narrator and how what little is included about the black characters, particularly Lee's choice of using "dialect" is considered enough, for many, to pronounce the book racist.

    However, earlier today, I had a conversation with one of my professors about his decision to join the Tea Party. He made this announcement with pride as if it to say, "aren't you proud of me?" to which, I replied, that as far as I'm concerned, he may as well put on a sheet and hood. To which he was taken aback.

    So, I'm willing to concede that I may have a bit of a blind spot where this book is concerned.

    I also feel that it challenges & codemns white supremacy in a way that is not at all as friendly as some wish to make it out to be.

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  44. Honestly, I never thought it was that good of a book. Period. Harper Lee dealt with the subject matter in a clumsy, sophomoric manner and didn't really dig deep at all into the issues of the day.

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  45. Is there any value in teaching a text just because it's part of what's generally perceived to be the literary canon? I'm not thinking so much of TKAM, here, as Shakespeare, Conrad, etc. Even acknowledging that racism, sexism and other historic "-isms" played a large role in determining which works attained such influential status, the fact is that canon status isn't going away: even my undergrad, where professors aggressively critiqued the whole "dead white male" thing, did teach the classics, and I felt I was at an advantage to the extent I had already encountered them. Even outside an academic setting, there are plenty of random moments where it seems that to lack familiarity with certain of these works would cause you to miss key parts of a conversation. If part of a school's job is to prepare students for college and life after college, then arguably the right response is not to just stop teaching these books. Nor, I would think, is it adequate for an English teacher to examine them with such an extreme social justice focus that aesthetics are abandoned completely.

    Victoria (I'm not implying this is what you would do, but) I've seen you post before about becoming an English teacher. May I ask why you chose English as a subject? Since you seem so passionate about historic and present-day social injustices and the manner in which they are taught in schools, I was wondering if you were drawn to social studies, history, sociology, etc. as well.

    My high school took an approach to American literature that I think was pretty good. Sophomore year (when social studies was devoted to the study of American history and English to the study of American literature), social studies and English classes were merged into one 90 minute block called American Studies. The class was team-taught by an English and a history teacher. When we studied a period in history, we also read works from that period, and this allowed each work to be analyzed in its broader cultural context. When we read Huck Finn, our English teacher included a discussion of whether Huck was a reliable narrator and our analysis of the novel obviously did not exclude racism, but it was our history teacher who provided more elaborate context concerning the racist influences and institutions that shaped that period and continue to endure today.

    Plus, as others have pointed out, books like TKAM don't need to be taught in the absence of other literary perspectives. My American Studies class of ~20 was almost all white (with the exception of one or two Asian kids), but alongside Huck Finn we read Their Eyes Were Watching God, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Song of Solomon and The Color Purple. Neither teacher emphasized it outright, but I left that class: (1) thinking Mark Twain was disturbingly racist and (2) thankful nonetheless to be conversant w/re: his work.

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  46. @ThatDeborahGirl

    I am going to defer to your much fresher memory on the text here. I am working from an interpretation I made when I was 15 years old. I would hope I'd have a richer understanding of any texts I'd re-read some 20 years later.

    I also concur that the sheltered narrator's perception of the black characters in her world is pretty realistic. I think the author's decision to use a 6 year old white girl in 1930's South to tell a story about racist unrest to a 1960's audience was apt.

    That said, this deliberate choice of author still felt a bit "manipulative" to me and I felt then it was a stand-in for the author's own lack of knowledge about black people. That wasn't my 15 year old self didn't say it in those words. My 15 year old self said "Yeah nice try White Lady, hiding behind a little kid to show how foreign and pathetic Black people seem to you."

    I don't know that I would have the same reaction re-reading it again. I don't think tho that would disqualify my intitial reaction.

    I share some of your concern that the book itself is being blamed for how it was received by audiences in classrooms. However, I can't go so far as to say that reading it out of the classroom by yourself free from external input is the only valid way to read and understand the text.

    As to my accusation of "whitesplaining." You said, in essence, that its silly to claim TKAM is racist and anyone who thinks so either didn't read the book as closely as you did, are overemphasizing the use of the N word, or we are simply expecting too much of Harper Lee. What you said was condescending and fairly hostile to the other commenters here. In place of "whitesplaining," feel free to insert another label you feel BETTER explains the condescension and backhanded dismissal of racism you presented us in your comment.

    I'm not one for saying "I'm sorry, but..." so I won't. I do regret that you feel I'm being hostile towards you personally. I'm not. My hostility is directed towards your original comment.

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  47. When I was in school most of the teachers taught what the curriculum told them and how it was told and that was about it. I remember having some doubts about some of the literature's content but since I'm white- as your article says- I never experienced the alienation and humiliation from it. There was always a sympathetic white character to look to when things got uncomfortable.

    In 11th grade we read the Crucible and I remember the girl who sat next to me was black and when it came her turn to read aloud there was a line about "the black woman" (something about a Satanic witch described as black because of her practices and not her skin) and she noticeably paused and sighed and then read the line. It really made me think about the language even though that's how everyone talked back then but I don't think it got through to me all the way. I was annoyed with The Great Gatsby because of the obvious bigotry the author randomly included.

    My 11th grade teacher was pretty blind about everything now that I think about it. When we studied the Harlem Renaissance the black students in the class got really excited but she seemed to have this dismissive attitude and just wanted to stay to what the curriculum said and her own ideas.

    My 12th grade British Lit teacher was more delved into her subject and willing to take criticism but there weren't many black students in the class and the subject matter didn't even try to involve them until near the end. I do remember that when we discussed the KJV she made us think critically about Jesus' race (a whole other topic, I know) and laughed at the idea of him being white and straight-haired.

    There was very little literature by anyone that wasn't white or black (maybe a couple haikus and a story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) so other races were excluded unless a white person wrote about them.

    I discussed TKAMB and the race issues with my mother today and she acknowledged the points even if she didn't totally agree. But it really made me think and (I could be wrong, so correct me please, but) I believe the whole issue boils down to: Why do we teach what we teach in English class? Is is to show what shaped us? To impart morals and values? Loyalty to heritage?

    Harper Lee and her book were progressive at the time and I'm sure she meant the best with writing it; but that's the whole thing. We don't teach the ideas and writings of abolitionists or others (in Psychology, Freudian ideas are always prefaced by acknowledging that they are no longer taken seriously. In Science we make a clear distinction about how Newtonian ideas only work up to a point.) so why should we continue to teach old ideas just because they have sentimental value.

    I really don't want to push a tone argument so if I am, please tell me and I will correct myself. But, just because we have emotional investment in something doesn't mean we should keep teaching it. The ideas in the book are alienating and outdated and there is plenty of other literature to fill the spot. Why not teach those others?

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  48. So here are a few questions for people who are in favor of keeping TKAM and its like on the required reading list for secondary school.

    How would you teach this material without alienating or insulting non-White students (for example, some of the "niggers" and "savages" and so on sitting right in your classroom)? How would you make sure that you are not coercing them to participate in their own degradation in the name of Great Literature? How would you make sure that you're not creating some of the painful memories expressed here? How would you make sure that you don't trigger painful experiences those students may have had that you don't know about?

    What would you do if a student of color outright said, "This material makes me uncomfortable. I don't like what it says about me and people like me."

    Or better yet, what would you do about a student whose parents said, "I will not subject my child to this for a grade"?

    See, it's easy to talk about this in the abstract and make it sound like it's a simple matter of explaining away concerns by saying "That's just the times" or "We're reading Black stuff too" or whatever, but I really doubt that anyone who has a modicum of sensitivity would have the guts to look a real person in the face and say, "I don't care what this book represents to you [or your child]. You're going to participate in this activity, and that's that."

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  49. I just have a quick question for everyone who has posted about their high school experiences: where did you guys go to high school?

    I ask because I'm a product of the NYC high school system, and my English teachers (and other teachers in the department) didn't teach TKAM nor any Mark Twain. In fact, we read a great deal of authors, playwrights, and poets of color, with the obligatory Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Orwell, and Thomas Hardy thrown in, which meant that we had a very nice balance between PoC and white authors. I will confess that I still haven't read TKAM because 1) I never "had" to for school and 2) precisely because of the racial issues being discussed here. It never sounded particularly appealing to me, regardless of it being so "acclaimed".

    I know for a fact that, when I was in high school, my school in particular had a very loose curriculum in the sense that the teacher was very free to mold it how he/she saw fit. Also, two of my four English teachers were PoC and another one was a gay white male. Now, I'm not saying that these qualities automatically made them better; however, I do think that I benefited greatly from having teachers who mostly knew what it feels like to be in the minority.

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  50. Mae said,
    >> "Even outside an academic setting, there are plenty of random moments where it seems that to lack familiarity with certain of these works would cause you to miss key parts of a conversation."

    Perhaps, then, one of the things that white people can do to fight racism is NOT make understanding references to racist Great Works of Literature a key part of our conversations!

    (I understand your broader point--that society is not made up only of the people who post on SWPD--but it's something for us to consider. The canon won't be re-formed unless people actively work to re-form it; this is one way those of us who are not English teachers can maybe contribute).

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  51. I am haniler. I don't know why I felt the need to post anonymously before except to say that I felt so ashamed of my experience, for the fact that I was unable and unwilling to speak up for myself, that I didn't want my sharing of it connected to me- even though no one here knows me.

    Reading the post previous to this one brought immediately to mind my experience with Huck Finn, and I'd wanted to post a comment there, but it seemed somehwat off topic. But that humiliation came back to me as if it'd just happened. It brought tears to my eyes to read so many similar situations for other people in the comments of this thread.

    I have been reading since the age of three. I found solace and escape in books. I love books, reading and writing. I feel that literature is one of the most essential, beautiful and honest expressions of culture. A good book can open minds. The fact that my story, or the stories of other People of Color, of all of us, are missing from study, and therefore implied to be substandard to the Great White Writers is wrong and a great loss for the culture of America.

    I am returning to school this fall- an English major, hoping to teach high school English, and plan to teach, or fight to teach, authors of color, female authors and international authors. These posts, and my own experiences, have been inspiring me.

    The thing about books- like with art and music- is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The problem with TKAM, and what I think this post is about for me, is that students of color are forced to look through another's eye and are also forced to find what that eye finds beautiful, beautiful.

    When will we be free to use our own sight and not be judged as overly sensitive? Angry? Unable to understand, comprehend when we do?

    I'd like to add how much I appreciate this blog. I've been devouring the posts and comments since discovering it. It has brought me much comfort and inspired hope in me regarding honest and deep discussion about race and race relations, as well as opening my eyes.

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  52. Re RVCBard's question: I said on the other thread that I thought literature that demeans POC is problematic in high school classes, not because it isn't possible to teach the material in a sensitive way, but because few teachers have the ability to do it. Other posters have given examples of both good experiences and bad experiences with various kinds of literature, including TKAMB. I don't teach literature, I teach sociology with an emphasis on racial conflict. Most of the time, as far as I can tell, POC like what I teach. But even though I mostly do things right, sometimes I make someone uncomfortable. I deal with this by soliciting regular feedback from students and trying to be open to criticism and doing what I can to repair the damage when someone has gotten hurt.

    So back to your question, RVCBard, my perception is that there is potential for harm no matter what we do, because the larger racial hierarchies always impinge on our classrooms, and the particular mix of students and our own limitations will inevitably lead us to make mistakes. Any White teacher will inevitably contribute to racial hierarchy by the sheer fact of being a White person in authority. Teaching only White literature is bad, but things can go wrong when a White teacher teaching POC-written literature, as well.

    This is not a license to do anything we want, but a call to remember the potential for harm as well as benefit in everything we do as a teacher, from choosing the books to starting discussions to grading papers.

    I like Placamal's example of a teacher who apologized when she realized she'd screwed up. Treating students as human beings with feelings and concerns Whether you teach TKAMB or not, a teacher has to be ready to respond to a student who is upset by something we've done, or a parent who is upset. Um, I'm sure the public school teachers reading this will point out that affluent parents already hassle their teachers.

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  53. I read TKAMB in my eleventh grade honors English class. I attended a New York City magnet school (i.e., 75% of the student body and 98% of the teaching staff/faculty was white) and was the sole Black male in the class (there were two Black females). Luckily, I had a white instructor who was way ahead of his time (this was 1983); he not only encouraged us to question the racist language (he spared us the indignity of having to hear the word nigger read out loud), portrayals (the Black people -- if we can even call them people -- are definitely props in the story), and narrative (the phrase he used was “the great white hope syndrome”), but whether or not the book should even be considered a literary classic (I’ll give you one guess where I, the other two Black students and the teacher stood on that one! LOL). All of this critical analysis of the text made many of the white students uncomfortable, particularly since several had been told by their parents or other white authority figures that TKAMB would be, as one raphsodized, “one of the most important books they’d ever read.” Yawn.

    Of course, that experience was an aberration; during my college years, I had to sit in classrooms where my voice was silenced and my very existence discounted. Which is one of the reasons why I became a novelist--so that I could see me and others who look like, love like and live like me on bookshelves, outside of and away from a white/hetero gaze.

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  54. @ Steps

    my mother enrolled me into a historically white private college prep school on a horse farm in north NJ. My graduating class had 45 students; 23 boys and 22 girls. I was just about ready to strangle half of them by the time I graduated. I loved my school, its some of the students, some of their parents and some of the faculty that could suck and choke on a lime for all I care.

    I remember having a class discussion that went off on a tangent about our childhoods and I mentioned that I started reading when I was two years old. I was told by my classmates and my teacher that I was a flat out liar because it just wasn't possible. I wonder why? hmmm.

    Even during my senior World Literature Class, when we read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, my friend and classmate who is Nigerian was trying to correct our teacher. Of course she was shut down by our teacher who proclaimed to know more about Nigerian tribes. *rolls eyes*

    Even when the entire school was required to read Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane, to be completely honest I think, no I know that the deeper nuances went entirely over some of their heads and the same for some of our teachers. It was like they were formulating categories of good and bad black characters when each person mentioned is more faceted and complicated than the stereotypes that were being projected onto them! There were some peers that were understanding and objective to truly grasp the most they could from the book but others, not so much.

    RANT OVER... *wooosahh*

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  55. @Jane Laplain and others:

    So is the going conclusion that TKAM is oh-so insulting to black people? Because as a black female, I agree with what ThatDeborahGirl wrote. And my mother, a black English teacher and baby boomer with a vivid memory of the pre-civil rights days, shares her love of Harper Lee's novel. I didn't see any "whitesplaining" in her comment at all.

    I think the key is having a balanced representation of authors of all backgrounds in the curriculum, which my high school fortunately did. Another key is, of course, not presenting TKAM--or any novel, for that matter--as a supposed paradigm of what anti-racism or race relations looks like.

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  56. @April

    So is the going conclusion that TKAM is oh-so insulting to black people?

    TKAM is hardly Birth Of A Nation level offensive, if that's what you mean. I hope nobody is claiming it is. However, a few commenters here and elsewhere do seem to be saying that it is absolutely ridiculous to be offended by the racist language and subtext of TKAM. Apparently because it was so well crafted and portrayed the times so realistically. My response to that is: however *realistically* it was written is irrelevant to whether or not its racism offended me.

    You, ThatDeborahGirl, and your mother the english teacher are ALL entitled to your opinion. And I'll admit in a point by point analysis of the text you could probably persuade me to your side.

    But that's not how it's been going down here.

    Whenever people are in so many words telling me, "You MUST be on crack to think TKAM is in anyway racist. Ooooooobviously you didn't read it right the first time. Your interpretation is WRONG and your feelings are WRONG. Here's how I read it and until you read it like I did you can't possibly understand the book right..." Well yeah, I'm gonna call that shit out as disrespectful to say the least.

    Maybe I need to clarify what I mean by WHITESPLAINING:

    Whitespalining=The act of dismissing another person's valid concerns about or experiences with racism and/or racist subtext out of hand, while proceeding to explain the "correct" way that person should have seen it.

    A person doesn't have to be white to whitesplain, in my book. They just have to be telling you that any racism you "think" you may be seeing in a situation is bogus, or that its unreasonable to interrogate the white privilege of certain white people. (In this case, The Author's).

    @ThatDeborahGirl, I'm not trying to start beef with you or embarrass you, and I do feel badly that I've offended you calling all this out. This thread is veering dangerously close to derail if it isn't there already, and that's mostly my fault so I'm getting off my soapbox now. I hope I've made my points crystal clear. Peace.

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  57. This might be a good place to ask if anyone can name some contemporary (I'm talking 70s-present) British POC authors. When I taught British Literature (12th graders) for the first time last semester, I taught "The Toilet" by Gcina Mhlophe alongside "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf, but that was the only non-white author I taught. I had to use a good portion of my monthly copy allocation making copies of stories out of my own books.

    It's much easier teaching 9th-11th to bring in authors of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Not so much with the British Literature canon as presented in American high schools: Dead White Guys Plus Mary Shelley (and Jane Austen if you're lucky). So yeah...any suggestions appreciated.

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  58. One of the biggest problems w/English/literature tofay is that damn near ALL of the books are classics. So things like racism are presented as things that happened back then. Sadly, I cannot think of a single piece of literature that addresses racism and sexism post-Civil Rights Movement. Because gee, we'd have to start explaining shit like the Rockefeller laws and the prison system. You know shit that is faaaar more relevant today than some white savior lawyer and his plucky little girl.

    And no, one need not be white to whitesplain. Plenty of people of color do it - usually loudly, to show that they're different from those OTHER black people.

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  59. @ Willow:

    Well, agreed. Except that in addition to concrete conversations among a few white people, I was thinking of the broader cultural "conversation" too. This is a really random example, but a few weeks ago some cable channel was showing old reruns of The Simpsons, and one episode contained an extended, knowing parody of Huck Finn. I know that's "just" The Simpsons, but I think it's an example of how pervasively these works touch our culture. And while one solution might be for racist Simpsons writers to stop referencing the racist literary canon, I'm not sure that's entirely realistic. Shakespeare, for example -- isn't he the most-quoted person in the world (at least in English)? Obviously the canon does change over time, as more recent works gain greater influence and the influence of others subsides. I think we see this incrementally already: schoolkids are reading Toni Morrison now, in place of whom? Some former Great White Writer who has rightly fallen by the wayside.

    This is not @Willow in particular, but: at my (public) high school, our English readings also included a thick packet of excerpts from the Old and New Testaments. I would have been appalled by this if it were an effort to teach religion, but it wasn't. Instead, our teacher wanted us to read the Bible so that we'd be able to spot and analyze its influence in other works of literature. Hopefully the Bible will become less influential one day, but until that happens, I think this exposure is valuable.

    @ ridedamaverick:
    I cannot think of a single piece of literature that addresses racism and sexism post-Civil Rights Movement.

    Well, interestingly enough, I can think of a few books I read in school that addressed these themes and were written in the contemporary era, but all of them -- Song of Solomon, The Color Purple, and Beloved -- are set "back then." Hmm.

    Now that I think about it, in HS I can't recall reading much post-1970 "white" literature either. I think the curricula focus on the classics, period, so it's not just racism that's presented predominantly in a historical context.

    Anyways, is there anything wrong with an English class that neglects to address problems with the contemporary prison system? I mean, it's just English class. Sure the context and implications of literary works should be examined, but if once you've compiled your curriculum there are still important political and social issues left on the table, can't the English teacher to some extent rely on the social studies teacher to address them? These are just my two cents, but I think the measure of a comprehensive English curriculum is whether it includes the most influential authors, poetry and prose styles, and literary movements -- not whether it explores every major societal injustice. The latter is a mandate better placed on the social sciences.

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  60. @ Nomadologist
    contemporary (I'm talking 70s-present) British POC authors

    Zadie Smith?

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  61. Wow, Mae, you are really, really blinded by the White!

    All those hoary classics, including the Bible as its handled in white-framed contexts, aren't simply "classics"; they're white classics. Those who don't attend to race while reading and teaching and studying them and their contexts are as blind to their white supremacist tendencies as you seem to be.

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  62. AE, I don't recall suggesting that English teachers shouldn't "attend to race" -- just they shouldn't teach literature with "such an extreme social justice focus that aesthetics are abandoned completely." Are you saying you disagree?

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  63. Mae - when it comes to literature, history is important. Take any literary theory course and one would be hard pressed to escape it no matter which theory one tries to use. The setting/time of the story AND of the time the author wrote in always come into play. Time = history. I have other reasons for teaching English, but this isn't about me.

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  64. I have also been thinking about RVCBard's point. I would hope that if a student's parent registered an objection, the student could be excused from that portion of the curriculum and given an alternate assignment. This was offered at my high school with respect to the Bible readings, and also offered as an option for religious parents w/re: sex ed. Obviously, however, it's more problematic for a student to miss out on a portion of the curriculum for reasons traceable to race than to, say, religion. I just think some balance needs to be struck, since it does seem kids would be disadvantaged in college and in the real world if they hadn't read (e.g.) any Shakespeare.

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  65. @nomadologist
    I second the recommendation of Zadie Smith. Also Hanif Kureishi. Then take a look at this list: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (Not all POC, but you could find the POC among them...)

    @mae
    I think ridedamaverick did not mean that no books exist on race post-civil rights era--just that none of them are granted status as "classic." I also don't think ze meant that the prison system should necessarily be discussed in school. I think the point was that white people prefer classics that place racism comfortably in the past, as a product of another time. Books that look at the racism of today would require a frank conversation acknowledging that racism still exists today and taking a hard look at the institutions/policies/attitudes that enact and support it.

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  66. @Mae,

    AE, I don't recall suggesting that English teachers shouldn't "attend to race" -- just they shouldn't teach literature with "such an extreme social justice focus that aesthetics are abandoned completely." Are you saying you disagree?

    No, I don't disagree. But, How many hs English teachers do that? I'd imagine just about none. I think you're setting up a straw man (or straw teacher) there.

    You seem, actually, uncomfortable with "too much" of a social justice focus. You seem, that is, to think that "aesthetics" are more important that discussions/understandings of social justice. That the latter can overshadow the former, and so on.

    Am I right? If so, where is that sentiment really coming from?

    I think a favoring of aesthetics over social justice issues in art always comes from locations/positions of privilege. Usually unexamined ones.

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  67. I think a favoring of aesthetics over social justice issues in art always comes from locations/positions of privilege. Usually unexamined ones.

    *clap*
    *clap*
    *clap*

    And I'm a playwright!

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  68. AE and RVCBard,
    Yes indeed -- especially if you begin to historicize the notion of "aesthetics" itself as hierarchically determined and sustained. Instead of placing aesthetics and social justice in mutually exclusive categories, it is useful to think of them as inextricably linked together. I was happy to see that a similar false dichotomy between history and literature was addressed earlier.

    The term "aesthetics" is far from value-neutral. What is consensually deemed artistically "tasteful," "beautiful," "great," or "classic" always implies a distancing from, for lack of a better word, a presumed non-aesthetic Other. In literary studies, the terms translate into the opposition between a uninversalized "literature" versus pop/ ethnic/ chick ... the list of "lits" goes on (note the abbreviation, too). Or, temporally, it might manifest as the canonical versus the equally problematic "emerging" (invoking, at least for me, incarceration and immigration). The hierarchy is produced through a complex but very traceable economy of social and political access, which includes the privilege of exclusion.

    Ironically, being conscious of this critique does not make it easier to design a more inclusive curriculum or to teach it in the classroom. As long as the aesthetic is separated from and privileged above the social, works from the "other" category will always carry the extra burden of proving their existence alongside "Great Books." In trying to diversify my own university course with that unfortunate title -- and with the added joy of being the first person of color to teach it in the university's history -- I am especially tired of sharing this burden as I optimistically introduce non-traditional material every year. And I should emphasize that the burden is mine alone, since I do not wish to foist it on the few students of color in the course.

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  69. @Jane Laplain:

    OK, cool. Thanks. I enumerated my reasons why I think the original post on the topic was, to be blunt, way off the mark, but I'm not going to deny anyone the right to his/her opinion. But that goes the other way as well. And I didn't see any disrespect in ThatDeborahGirl's post; you made it a confrontation. But anyway...

    I take issue most of all with Macon D, who is white, taking it upon himself to declare that one text is offensive to students of color. How did he come to that conclusion? Doesn't jibe with my experience, and as a black woman, I think I would have more authority to make that determination--though, of course, I wouldn't dare be so full of myself to purport to speak for a whole group of people.

    Going off of the vast majority of comments, the problem seems not to be the book, but bad teaching of the book. When I read this book for class, our teacher never made any proclamations that "this is how it was when there was racism, but that's over now" or any similar foolishness. It was taught as a coming-of-age novel. We analyzed the symbolism of the mockingbird. We discussed its historical context. For the people who suffered under teachers who were clueless enough to make proclamations about the end of racism, I'm sorry. But that's not the fault of To Kill a Mockingbird. That clueless teacher would have probably done the same with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, whose central characters are black.

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  70. A lot of the defense of the book, here and at Racialicious, is, "Don't blame Harper Lee..."

    If she were a white man, would we be rushing to defend her?

    (Open question--I'm curious if any of you see 'protect the white women' as a factor here, not saying categorically that this is going on).

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  71. April,
    "Going off of the vast majority of comments, the problem seems not to be the book, but bad teaching of the book."

    I think there is that, but I also hear two other things: (1) that the novel itself embodies a racist perspective toward the black characters, using them largely as props etc. and (2) that, for some, READING the novel (not having it taught to them in some unfortunate way) produced a visceral and uncomfortable feeling of "something is very wrong here."

    We can argue about and have all sorts of opinions about (1)--and I certainly believe that you are entitled to yours, whether it is the same or different from mine. But I think we have to respect (2), even if it's not our experience. And it was these readers--the ones who felt an immediate "ugh"--who I didn't think were acknowledged in ThatDeborahGirl's first comment. Since Jane LaPlain was one of those readers (see her comment at the very beginning of the first TKAM thread), it doesn't surprise me that she spoke out. No one wants to be ignored or silenced or made to feel like their experience doesn't count. And I feel like, in insisting that this is all about teaching and not about the novel itself, you also ignore the experience of readers like Jane.

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  72. @April

    The very first line of his post says where he got this, it was not from him.
    See below:

    This is a follow-up to the previous swpd post, in response to many of the readers' comments there.

    Here's something that I as a white person can never really know -- what's it like for non-white children when they have to sit through an education system that still normalizes and glorifies white people and white ways, more or less all of the time? A system that also still denigrates the contributions and lived experiences of people of color, more or less all of the time?

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  73. @Lhunfindel:

    Yes, but there are also plenty of other readers of color, myself included, who do cherish this book. I think it's pretty presumptuous to declare that TKAM is part and parcel of the marginalization and denigration of people of color, when there are plenty of experiences to the contrary.

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  74. @Lhunfindel:

    Basically, you and he are employing the "I have a black friend who says X, hence it is so" line of argument, which is in itself problematic. There may be more than one black friend in this case, but that doesn't make the argument any more palatable.

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  75. Willow,

    Might be, although I've heard people make similar arguments about white male authors ("don't blame Conrad, he didn't know any better," etc).

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  76. @ April

    Ok I was just saying Macon didn't come up with this post idea, it was submitted on another thread, I thought you were blaming him for coming up with the idea. My bad. Carry on.

    I personally hate the book and the movie. They make me sick to my stomach.

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  77. -the book uses racist language
    -the book was written by a white woman in the 50s
    -the book was written for a white audience
    -the protagonist is white
    -the book has few black characters
    -apologists for modern day white supremacy love the book
    -white people in general love the book
    -the book is part of the white supremacist American literary cannon
    -the experience of POC who were taught the book by white teachers among mostly white students has been pretty much universally hurtful and traumatic

    To Kill A Mockingbird may well be a racist book, but in my opinion not for the reasons listed above.

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  78. But asking whether TKAM is A Racist Book is the wrong question. Just like asking whether I'm racist, or any white person is racist, is the wrong question.

    It allows us to get bogged down in "But I didn't intend...", which is (a) so very white and (b) beside the point.

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  79. Wow. April. Thank you. I am very appreciative of your support in this thread.

    Not in this thread, but in the previous one, I have to admit, I posted that I thought the topic was "absurd". That TKAM could be thought of as racist, in and of itself had never really occured to me.

    I know that white people tend to glorify Atticus Finch. I read this article recently about so many lawyers reading TKAM and deciding to follow in his footsteps, that I was laughing a the end. I guess I've never quite seen Atticus as a hero. He was a much better father than he was a lawyer - and his defending Tom Robinson was one white guy finally deciding to do his damn job.

    And Atticus doesn't risk much. Not from the town who was always going to protect him and his family the Ewells anyway. And the black folks who definitely give him an A for effort. But Atticus' oddity in being a "nigger lover" doesn't earn him so much as a sidewise glance from the town like that. It's just another odditity in a list of strangenesses this town where "No Crawford Minds His Own Business, Every Third Merriweather Is Morbid, The Truth Is Not in the Delafields, All the Bufords Walk Like That..." or Aunt Alexandra's list of streaks....this person has a drinking streak, and that person has a mean streak.

    Atticus is not condemned because he does work for the town and county that no one else is willing to do. And because no one has quite forgotten that he was once called "One Shot Finch" and despite his nearsightedness is pretty handy with a shotgun. He is admired for this, to them, manly trait among other things, but it makes him a man not to cross. So if Atticus doesn't end up with a cross burned on it's lawn it's because, as a white man, he's entitled to have the town look on his temporary lapse into humanity as just another foible on his part. On the day of the trial when someone mutters, "Yonder's some Finches," the question is launched. Will Scout & Jem grow up to be just like their Daddy? Is being a "nigger lover" some family trait imbibed just like the Delafields and Bufords? Because if so, then it's not Atticus's fault and allows the town to forgive him.

    Now.

    I say all this to go on to this.

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  80. There seems to be an assumption among white people who glorify the book and others who want to paint it with a "happy ending" brush, is that watching all this and even a white child "understanding" what racism is, there is no definite line of logic that says Jem & Scout won't be racists when they get older. Jem is definitely the worse for the wear and seems to regard Tom's trial as an excercise in the unfairness of the American Judicial system. Like many white people, he still seems to feel Tom got a fair shake, but something in the system is wrong and despite all he's witnessed, he can't quite put his finger on what that "something" is.

    And Scout. As much as we can surmise that the narrator is Harper Lee, there is no guarantee that the child in the book will have Lee's sensibilities at all. Despite the pants wearing, gun shooting, smoking and swearing tomboyishness of her childhood, the end of the book finds her in a dress passing cookies politely at a missionary tea in her own living room, despite her inner turmoil at having learned that Tom Robinson is dead.

    She has learned that showing emotionalism over a dead "negro" is not acceptable in a room full of white people. And she rises to the occasion beautifully, even as a child, passing cookies politely and for the first time in her life, garnering the approval of the Aunt whom she previously depsised.

    I had a point here... but I think I'll sum all this up...

    I am one to apologize, so I wll say that I'm sorry for my initial response that calling the book racist is absurd. I, of all people, should know better and this was a wake up call for me in how, even I am capable of denying that something is "racist" although, this is not my normal pattern. If someone came to me tomorrow and said that "daisy's are a racist flower," I'd probably be out writing the treatise backing up that theory and protesting. But in this case, I learned that we all have our sacred cows, and I suppose, rightly or wrongly, TKAM may be one for me. I suppose I'm going to have read it yet again, this time, looking up differing opinions and parts of the book or overall impressions that people have found racist or overly glorifying of white folks so that I can be more aware of the damage this book has done to so many.

    I still feel, that poor teaching of this book, particularly by white teachers who probably thought themselves "liberal" is at the root of a lot of painful associations with TKAM. Nearly every other post here describes the same scenario - of a child being humiliated by the reading of the passages using the n-word and a teacher being blind to that humiliation.

    Someone pointed out that other's, particuarly Jane, just had a "I feel something's wrong here" experience, but then again, Jane's contact with the book was in a classroom setting. I can't help but think that while maybe her teaching situation was handled better than some of the horrifying descriptions here, it was still enough to make her feel out of place.

    Which leads me to the conclusion that either I'm a lot "whiter" in my thinking than I know or, as a black woman who never encountered this book in a classroom setting, the fact that I don't bear that particular badge of humiliation makes a difference in how I see, remember and even now, read and percieve the intent of this book.

    But that's the point of this blog isn't it? To make us, even black folks sometimes, aware of our "privilege" and that our own perceptions may not be the experience of someone else.

    If you would like to read the book online, here's a link: http://www2.stjohnsprep.org/teachers/mm_english/lee/mockingbird/contents.html

    (I am sorry, but I had a lot to say)

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  81. I have read this book, in great depth. I find it to be particuarly well written and phrased, but it also has a ring of truth in some places that cannot be just the author's imagination.

    I think that one reason I don't find the book's description of the lack of black people to be odd because she sums it up for me in the description of the black people's church, First Purchase, African M.E. Church.

    I grew up A.M.E. or African Methodist Episcopal. The AME Church was founded by Richard Allen around the same time as the founding of America, after being pulled off their knees to pray at the altar during a Sunday service after it had been decided that blacks were no longer worthy to pray there. They must not only sit in the balcony or the rear, but also pray there as well.

    Once they were pulled off their knees and barred from the Altar, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left with many others and founded the AME Church, which has the distinction of being the only church founded on the social issues of black people being discriminated against in church rather than theological issues.

    The tradition of the AME Church is one of faith, service, education and the steady provenenace of the equality of black people. These people could have been stereotypically "baptist" but either Harper Lee actually lived this situation or she went to some lengths to specifically include this denomination in her work.

    So to me, the black people in the story, have built not only a community but also a church - and not just any church, but a church that has historically educated and believed in the equality of black people.

    Given this information, it's hard for me to understand why the black people in the story are seen as passive or docile. Because you do realize that in the day and age we're talking about, entire black communities were burned out of existence just for becoming to numerous, let alone prosperous.

    It seems to me, that so many want the black people to be doing "more" to advance their own cause. But to me, it seems they are, in Scout's definition, the very epitome of "fine folks". People who "do the best they can with what they've got." They may not be marching or carrying signs or giving white folks "what for" with every turn of the page, but honestly, given the time period, how could they?

    They build a community, work for a living, raise their children and keep on keeping on. And for this we call them docile? If you've ever seen "A Bronx Tale" the real hero is the guy who's only in the movie for 10 minutes. The unseen guy who goes to work and earns his living, not the flambouyant gangster who thinks he controls everything and loses his humanity and life doing so.

    So, I guess I'm back to "whitesplaining" again, but honestly, if anything, I feel this book shows white people in, if not the worst light possible, then nearly. Some people have complained that it's racism seen through white eyes - which is true, but it's also racism that's made fairly plain, even to a child in the end.

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  82. @ThatDeborahGirl

    Thank you for clarifying your views. I also apologize for escalating the hostility. You were hardly the only person to dismiss the racist possibilities of the book, and you were far from the rudest about it.. I sort of singled you out for punishment for ALL like comments with my own aggressive tone. Looking back I feel silly for taking it so personally.

    Someone pointed out that other's, particuarly Jane, just had a "I feel something's wrong here" experience, but then again, Jane's contact with the book was in a classroom setting. I can't help but think that while maybe her teaching situation was handled better than some of the horrifying descriptions here, it was still enough to make her feel out of place.

    Again let me clarify I didn't read the book IN the classroom, I read it before the semester began. It was am honor's class so we covered about two books a week and we mostly just did a targeted review or specific chapters before committing to an individual thesis. THAT classroom experience WAS racist as all get out. But I never even got to explain my intitial interpretation of the book's racism in class as I was outnumbered and talked over the entire time.

    I explained a little more in depth exactly what I found racist about TKAM in the other thread earlier today so I won't reiterate it all here.

    Let me break up this comment into two, I feel like mine is gonna be a long one as well.

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  83. @ThatDeborahGirl (CONT)

    I see what you are saying about Atticus being respected rather than punished for taking up for Tom Robinson because he was a white man, and the town grudgingly respected him. It was certainly a good model FOR taking the moral high road when it came to racist peer pressure. But I felt this story arc was more wishful thinking than realistic for the times. Resisting a murderous white mob would have taken SO MUCH MORE than simply standing up to peer pressure and doing the right thing. It would have meant literally risking your own life. Which I suspect is why there WERE so few Atticus Finches back then.

    Back in the DAY a white man who was accused of being a "nigger lover" particularly in the midst of negotatiating against a black person's lynching, was very much in danger of being lynched himself. Lynchings were big business, spawning in the South a creepy hallmark-esque postcard industry with ghastly souvenirs for sale (fingers, toes, cloth, or blood of the lynched negro)... small towns looked FORWARD to these events like going to carnvial.

    In a smaller more private lynching... Tom Robinson would more likely have been murdered in the night, in his jail cell or in his home, likely with the full cooperation of the police. Also his female relatives would probably have been raped and beaten for good measure. THAT was how these stories REALLY ended in the day... not in grudging town respect for the white lawyers defending accused black men. Harper Lee had to know that, being that she LIVED thru that era herself. So to choose to write such a tidy alternative to the real life ugliness of a lynching... there had to be some sort of agenda there. And it had something to do with her White Privilege and the fact she COULD choose to deal with lynchings in that way.

    A non-fiction book I recommend is MAKING WHITENESS: The Culture of Segregation In The South 1890-1940, by Grace Elizabeth Hale. It reveals how Anti-black violence was SUCH a crucial part of White Southern identity and White solidarity it was tantamount to treason to stick up for a black man who had already been convicted in the jury of white public opinion. There was no escaping this, it was pop culture in the south. It was advertised in newspapers. It was everywhere.

    So yeah TKAM upon first reading was awfully tidy and convenient for my tastes. I only suspected this back then, but I've since done some research as to how deeply ingrained mob culture was in Jim Crow south. Real life didn't produce too many TKAM's. And at the highly racially contentious time she composed this book, it strikes me as a deliberat historical revisionism on her part. While TKAM makes for a great feel good story, it lets alot of real life White folks off the hook for the REALITY of anti-black violence that was (and IS still) brewing in the present day. She wrote about this fictional town's racism, but she didn't present (m)any difficult truths about the way southern white society itself was structured. The bad guys are painfully obvious. "Lynching is bad, mkaay? We're not like those backwards bigots in our hearts we're like ATTICUS! Too bad Atticus couldn't save poor Tom tho..... but his HEART was in the right place. Oh Well! HOORAY FOR OVERCOMING RACISM EVERYBODY!"

    Did Lee intend for her novel to be received this way? I'm sure she didn't. But her choices in story structure and characters were obviously well suited for exactly this sort of reception. She struck a chord with people who wanted the moral certainity of being against Racism, without having to do any difficult unpacking on the topic. I think that's secretly what she wanted for herself.. of course one can't be sure.

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  84. She wrote about this fictional town's racism, but she didn't present (m)any difficult truths about the way southern white society itself was structured. The bad guys are painfully obvious. "Lynching is bad, mkaay? We're not like those backwards bigots in our hearts we're like ATTICUS!

    *******
    I just can't agree with this assessment of the book.

    But first - it's very hard not to take racism personally. I had a white girl tell me that recently. It had to do with her using the word "ghetto" and I was offended and told her and she said, I'm just reading a title off a computer screen and, "don't take it so personally." I let her know that I did would continue to do so until she shut the hell up.

    So I understand that my defending what you find to be unconscionable is hurtful. Ironic that that's a major theme of the book as well. Atticus is defending what the white folk in the book find to be a heinous, if not ficticious crime. And the white folks are defending their unconsionable racism at all costs.

    Because the bad guys in the book in this book numbers nearly every single white person except possibly Atticus & Adolphus Raymond. That's it. Two in an entire town.

    The miracle is that Tom dies getting shot in prison and not being lynched. And Lee makes it plain that it's only the freak occurence of Scout, Jem & Dill showing up - and Scout's odd moment of getting through to Mr. Cunningham that keeps them from lynching Tom. But those men were perfectly willing to hurt Atticus and his children. Mr. Underwood covering Atticus with a shotgun from the window is trying to help Atticus, but definitely not Tom.

    If that had not happened, the book would have been over, Tom would have been lynched and white people don't get tried and convicted for their crimes. You can fault her for using an almost lynching as a plot device for getting to the tiral, but the trial is important because it is less about rape than it is about white people's hearts. And white people are collectively found guilty. The jury is polled and the verdict each juror is pronouncing is not on Tom, but themselves. The white people just don't know it.

    You state that "She struck a chord with people who wanted the moral certainity of being against Racism, without having to do any difficult unpacking on the topic."

    I find this quite the contrary. She spells out in plain language that Tom Robinson was dead the moment Mayells Ewell opened her mouth to scream and that all white people are to blame. She does, exactly, what so many don't do, and something we are admonished not to do in polite conversation. It's funny to me that , even on this board, when we talk about racism, even the POC are always careful to preclude our statements with words that make sure we don't mean ALL white people, just the racsit few. Lee doesn't lay the blame at the feet of a few white people, she condemns them ALL.

    If white people CHOOSE to only focus on the good, then isn't that a part of the stuff white people do? Turn a blind eye to the deeper issues of racism at their convenience.

    The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves. I do not find fault with Lee's writing but with people who only want to look on the surface and not find he racism in their own souls.

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  85. I am also white, and I grew up in a rust-belt city much like Detroit, going to public magnet schools that were diverse by their own charters. My teachers were pretty down-to-earth and aware, and we not only read TKAM, but also Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and others. Even if we didn't exactly dissect TKAM, we also had a lot of other material for balance.

    Although I am white, I think a (somewhat*) parallel experience for me was going through an elite law school as a woman. There were so many times when I wanted to just put the class on pause and discuss what I thought was really going on with the professor. But I knew that ultimately they didn't care or wouldn't really get where I was coming from. They were so wrapped up in the theory of some random jurisdictional question that the concept of taking a step back and seeing how so many things in the system that seem like purely theoretical puzzles are shaped by human beings who have intense biases. In this case, those humans are mostly white men, and the ordered logic they think they're shaping is so... white and male. I majored in women's studies in college and I also read some race studies literature, so I was used to asking some of these questions, but I could tell it had never occurred to many of my classmates, including many women, that these institutions didn't just spontaneously emerge but rather were shaped by prejudices both conscious and unconscious.

    I started to feel sometimes like I was existing in parallel worlds, the one in the classroom and the "real" world I was using my new knowledge to really see more and more. Even though I was raised by feminists and had spent years thinking about a lot of these issues, it was very strange and disorienting. And even kind of terrifying, particularly when I knew that so many of the folks who didn't get it would end up with powerful jobs that would continue to affect my place in the world as a woman.

    I was lucky enough to go to a gr 5-12 school that gave me some of this perspective early on, and I don't envy the job of teachers who are trying to figure out how to deal with these issues. I'm also concerned about putting this pressure on educators without support in the larger world for helping kids explore these ideas.

    *I am not trying to say that racism and sexism are the same, or that they generate the same experience for those living them. However, there is similarity in the willingness of people to deny the violence that occurs daily, whether it's physical, emotional, or economic. And of course the intersections of race and sex presents an even more complex set of problems. And I'm not even going to touch the sexuality and gender identification thing...

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  86. @ThatDeborahGirl

    The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves. I do not find fault with Lee's writing but with people who only want to look on the surface and not find the racism in their own souls.

    Sounds pretty good to me. I'd forgotten the details of that shooting scene. Hrmmm. You've convinced me, at the very least, to pick up a new copy of TKAM and give it another try. Thanks for this great discussion. :)

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  87. My HS AP English teacher was an old southern lady, and assigned "Native Son" my senior year. After reading the book and having our final class discussion, she turned to me in class and asked me how this book made me feel "as a black person." Twenty heads turned around and stared at me, waiting for me to tell non-black people how "we" take this book and racism in general. I'm 2nd generation Caribbean so our experiences have been somewhat different, but I doubt she knew that, or cared. SMH

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  88. Carena said:

    "My HS AP English teacher was an old southern lady, and assigned "Native Son" my senior year. After reading the book and having our final class discussion, she turned to me in class and asked me how this book made me feel "as a black person." "

    The wrongness of that...good lord. I know the same kind of experience (being asked to speak for every person of your race/ethnicity/background by a teacher in front of a class) has already been commented on so this is essentially my thoughts on that kind of situation.

    I never saw this happen in a classroom. I'm glad I didn't. How can teachers single out students like that? Is it going too far to make that grounds for firing or at least some kind of suspension? Because a teacher who has any kind of concern about their student's well-being is not going to do that. It's the verbal equivalent of putting them on a witness stand under a spotlight while all the WP hush and listen (or not listen, or completely disregard them, as Jane LaPlain said earlier). It's abuse. A good teacher does not point at the one black kid in the class and say "It's time for Ask a Black Person!" No one should be treated like that. No teacher should ever ask a student that kind of question.

    I really like how Placamal handled the assignment they received, how they responded to its implications & assumptions.

    teardropgalaxy said:

    (a classmate was annoyed why "that yam book" -Achebe's Things Fall Apart was included in a world literature curriculum)

    Please tell me you slapped the shit out of whoever said that. (I love that novel) I guess that's another thing for SWPD: casually dismiss works by nonwhite authors.

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  89. Huck Finn, Honors English, during my junior year in high school. It wasn't the constant use of the word nigger (we had versions of the book where the word was replaced with euphemisms), it was the dialog that Jim was given. We had to read certain passages out loud during class time and I think I actually refused to read Jim's dialog in front of the whole class. It just irked me that Jim's dialog was written that way.

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  90. Same set-up as Mr. Noface & haniler: Huck Finn, Honors English, junior year.


    Right before assigning the book, the teacher had decided that since I was the only black person in the class, she'd ask me (in front of everyone) if I'd feel uncomfortable reading the book as it had some derogatory phrases in it. I said no, and she walked away.

    Why didn't she ask the rest of the class if they'd feel uncomfortable with the reading material? If I had answered "yes," what would she have done? I'm pretty sure she would've had everyone continue to read it anyway & I would've been re-assigned a different book, singling me out even further. ugh. I think that's my only regret during high school, now that I think about it. I wish I had the confidence then to challenge what she had done. Oh yeah this happened in 2005.

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  91. A couple semesters ago I took an "American Realism" class where we read Huck Finn. I remember the professor (who was white) seemed to handle the discussion pretty well; one of the first things we addressed before delving into the book was the blatant racist portrayals (especially of Jim). In fact, the racism in the book was what we discussed primarily, and by the end of the novel several people in the class (black and white students) were arguing that Jim was, by far, a more noble character (better person) that Huck. I agree with this assessment, as I think Jim is the most compassionate character in the book- however, that doesn't overshadow the fact that his charicature-like racist portrayal can overshadow this fact if a professor isn't teaching the novel right. One thing that did bother me tremendously, however, was that the professor openly used the word "n-gger" when reading from the book, or even when casually referencing the language of the book. It was uncomfortable how casual the word became in the classroom, and I wondered how my black classmates felt about it.

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  92. It started in Grade 3 for me, when our teacher cheerfully read out, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," from Little House on the Prairie. About fifteen years later, I found myself in a graduate seminar on children's literature being told that yes, that line is problematic, but as long as children are also made to read The Birchbark House, it should remain part of the curriculum. Once again, the message is: Our fun is more important than your dignity.

    You would think, judging from school curricula, that people stopped writing books after 1930. There doesn't seem to be any conception from some teachers and librarians that there are other texts that cover the same themes, are just as well-written, and actually provide a fuller view of the human experience. It seems to me that the people who cling to "classics" are people who do not have the ability to judge literature themselves; if you need to wait fifty years to tell if something is a relevant and worthy book, then you have no business teaching kids about literature.

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  93. (This is partly in response to the earlier thread, but the discussion is somewhat dead there, and this is a continuation of that post, so I'll add it here)

    I've been continually puzzled by the idea that high school students are idiots who can't understand that "good" books can be problematic, or that it would only work at the college-prep level to analyze it that way. Or who can't understand that the ideas perpetuated in this book continue today (as with the Innocence Project example). I really liked the comment in the last post pointing out that a lot of the college-bound students will get this approach anyway in college literature classes, so it's really the non-college-bound kids who need to hear this the most. This should be clear to anyone who has looked at the class background of Tea Party members, that there's a serious missing of the boat here when we decide that college is the place to teach white kids about privilege.

    The other post seemed to be calling for censorship (yes, "removing from the curriculum" counts - at least, major anti-censorship organizations like the Freedom to Read Foundation, the ALA and the ACLU count curriculum removals) and frankly, it's just as much a First Amendment violation coming from the left as it is coming from the right. (Even beyond the post, you have commenters like e w s patting themselves on the back for book-burning, and no challenges to that attitude. That's just fucking disturbing.) Censorship completely misses the point, anyway, which is that books you find problematic aren't going to just magically go away. Even if kids in a certain district don't learn TKAM, they will hear about it elsewhere and pick it up in a bookstore, and come away with the impression of Thank Goodness Things Aren't That Way Anymore. As V said in V for Vendetta, ideas are bulletproof, and that includes bad ideas. If you want to combat them, you need to do so with opening discussion, not shutting it down.

    You know what else is usually taught in a very problematic way? Nazi Germany. It's portrayed as a 1984-ish state and kids come out of the lesson with the impression of "God, those Germans were so stupid! I would have stood up to Hitler!" The way in which it could happen again - in fact, HAS happened again, from the Balkans to Rwanda - or the fact that the same tactics pop up in modern political movements (again, Tea Party) is completely lost. But I don't see anyone arguing we should not learn about Nazis in our history classes. Indeed, the argument tends to be that we should REFORM how we teach it. Why can't we realize that applies with books as well?

    We could always just not teach it, but you know what? The truth is, TKAM is probably one of the best books out there for starting a discussion about racism in the criminal justice system, if you teach it correctly. Why should something as anti-democratic as censorship be the solution to a problem which is really just shitty teachers/curriculum writers and treating high school students as less intellectually advanced than they are?

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  94. My memories of the book are somewhat scarce, but I do remember feeling unsettled by the way the text dehumanized the Tom Robinson character, and watching the cheeky grin on my 8th grade lit teacher's face as he recited in a sing-song tone the insult flung at one of the other characters... "N----- lover". Disgusting

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  95. This post has opened my eyes, to a new way at looking at this book. When I was young, I read it but don't remember the teacher making people read it out loud. I felt it opened my eyes to racism, and I started to question the things around me that I didn't think were right. But, reading everyone's comments, I can see that I didn't see the book from all persptectives. My niece is of mixed race, and now I wonder what it would be like for her to read this. Thanks for causing me to reavaluate things.

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