At a time when racist actions fill our newsfeeds and send us into a low-grade depression, the last thing we want to see is the n-word in our children’s schoolbooks. So the recent decision of a Virginia mother to ask that state's Accomack County to remove Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from the local schools was understandable. It just wasn’t right.
But I get it. I was a young person for whom the n-word and others equally damaging were the flora and fauna of my environment. So when my kids were little, I, too, tried to keep certain words from crossing my lips. I switched off certain songs when they played on the radio, and monitored the movies that came into my home. But then I decided to write a historical novel about a girl held in slavery, and guess what? The words that the master used to address the young female protagonist could not be pretty. What would he call her? You can imagine.
Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary. If a character in a book uses the n-word, we can explain this to our child in the same way we teach that God is invisible, death is inevitable and it is folly to make idols out of celebrities. That’s the reality of parenting, and it is our duty.
We also need to point our children in the direction of books that will support their self-concepts. We Need Diverse Books is one resource. So are the Brown Bookshelf and anything published by Lee and Low and Just Us Books.
But it’s important to take a hard line on the removal of books from classrooms and shelves. Not only does that express our fear of ideas, but the crazy thing about censorship is that everyone wants the other person to shut up. So when we take books that we don’t like from the shelves, we can’t complain when others remove those that reflect our views. What happens if books about civil rights, early freedom fighters and slavery, for example, begin to disappear? You can bet that in this conservative era, threats to books like that will be forthcoming.
To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were immediately taken from the shelves because the rule in Accomack County is that a challenged book must disappear until there is a review. But then there was an outcry in support of the First Amendment, with advocates pointing out the books’ positive values of teaching history and racism for generations. The books were quickly reviewed and put back.
I was one of about a dozen black youths in a school of 900 whites in the 1960s. Books by authors of all races buffered me. They were especially helpful if they were set in another time. From The Three Musketeers to Oliver Twist to Black Boy, books gave me the tools to view injustice from a safe distance. Literature from the past does the same thing now. Kids can read about struggles in other eras and contextualize their daily outrage. Books can show them that the human condition is often tumultuous and unpredictable.
Literature also offers tools to see the gray areas of ethics, so necessary at this point in our history. Classic books with well-drawn characters may let our kids step back from the Machiavellian rhetoric in our environment to a more thoughtful place where they can understand the differences between well-meaning people and just plain mean ones.
In our electronically saturated society, young people read headlines much more than a whole story, and they frequently hear outcries without any historical background. They need books that show them the kinds of societies in which racism flourished in as much complexity and reality as an author can muster.
Good books don't inflict the wounds; they provide the balms. Just consider the words, “Once upon a time … ” It is the beginning of every fairy tale. There are bad guys and good guys. A child identifies with the hero, the good person.
And we, parents and teachers, reinforce that. We tell our children that they, too, have courage and resilience inside themselves, just like the main character. They will rise above their difficulties and surroundings, we predict. And if we live without fear of words, ideas or racism itself, our children will believe us. Then we will have our happy ending. Our children will be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. And they will grow into the heroes of their families and communities and our nation.
Fatima Shaik teaches African-American literature at Saint Peter's University and is the co-chair of the Children's and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN American Center.