By Gary Earl Ross
News that a Virginia school district pulled “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms as it contemplates banning the books because of racial slurs couldn’t come at a worse time than right after a divisive election. If there is any time that language should be parsed and analyzed, it is now.
As a descendant of involuntary immigrants, I am no fan of the N-word.
But in four decades of teaching English I have certainly discussed it with students. As a novelist and playwright I have placed it on the tongues of characters. Whether fictitious or real, a person reveals his or her true self through language. In the context of a story, such revelations may offer us a basis for understanding, give us a foundation for facing adversity, or simply hold up a mirror in which we learn to see ourselves.
Many works of literature – from classical or religious texts to modern masterpieces – contain ethnic bias, violence, sexual impropriety and unsavory behaviors. But we must remember that stories are an essential part of human experience. They help us understand the beauty and ugliness of the world and enable us to form the core of who we are in relation to that world.
To ban the uncomfortable is to disarm students who must face reality.
Should we ban Elie Wiesel’s “Night” because some don’t want to remember the Holocaust, or slave narratives because others want to forget America’s original sin, or Harry Potter because magic is contrary to religion?
Where does it stop? If the N-word is the criterion, why stop with Harper Lee and Mark Twain? Ban Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, O. Henry and Agatha Christie. If stories of magic are banned, why not science books and texts from other faiths?
Monty Python fans will remember the line: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” The trouble is, too few people remember the Spanish Inquisition. Not remembering history makes us prime candidates for manipulation with everything from fake news stories to empty proclamations that usher us into a fact-free tomorrow.
Politics has been headed this way for a long time. Decades of the Limbaugh-Coulter-Fox echo chamber have turned the word liberal (once applied to those who sought rights for all) into a synonym for villainy.
Waterboarding and conversion therapy are euphemisms for torture. Religious freedom means the right to discriminate. Email and Benghazi, repeated without detail, made Hillary Clinton look like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS.
In the absence of context, the language of a candidate widely reported not to read books became the story: Little Marco, Muslim bans, Mexicans.
Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” The truth is, we can take the N-word and swastikas off shelves but we can’t remove them from the hearts of alt-right supremacists who gathered recently in Washington and North Carolina. Students deserve to be prepared for that reality.
Gary Earl Ross is professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center. His mystery novel “Nickel City Blues” will be published in March by Black Opal Books.