Bad words in good books

Image result for huckleberry finn jim n-wordWhat do we do about bad words in good books? asks Stephanie Cohen on Acculturated.

Author Dan Gutman, known for his My Weird School series and a baseball time travel series, responded on Facebook to parent asking whether it was appropriate to use “the n-word” in children’s books. The parent’s 10-year old son is reading Gutman’s book, Jackie & Me, about ballplayer Jackie Robinson, who integrated the Major Leagues. 9780380800841

In other books, Gutman has used symbols instead of curse words, the parents wrote. Why not here to replace a racial slur?

Gutman replied that he’d struggled with the question when he wrote the book 18 years ago. He decided that leaving it out would not describe accurately what Robinson went through in 1947. “I haven’t regretted my decision,” Gutman wrote. “Thousands of kids have learned about race relations and the civil rights movement by reading Jackie & Me.”

Five years ago, a publisher released a “less hurtful, less controversial” version of Huckleberry Finn that refers to Slave Jim and Indian (rather than Injun) Joe. It’s meant to be more acceptable in classrooms.

These are “teachable moments” for parents, writes Cohen.

When I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with my three oldest children, I . . .  told the kids that the next word was a very bad word . . . Reading the word, of course, prompted questions about when the word was used, who used it, why they used it, and whether anyone would still use it today.

Parents should not “shield our children from hearing evil or seeing the wrongs of the past,” writes Cohen.  “Our job as parents is to teach them how to be righteous people in their own moment of history and how to prepare to teach righteousness to their own children.”

The New York Times reports on a new series of kiddie classics known as KinderGuides that aim “to make challenging adult literary classics accessible to very young readers.”

Alice Hemmer’s favorite part of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” doesn’t involve the drug-addled cross-country road trips, encounters with prostitutes in Mexico or wild parties in Manhattan. Alice, who is 5 and lives in a Chicago suburb, likes the part when Sal Paradise eats ice cream and apple pie whenever he feels hungry.

Soon to come is a kiddie version of To Kill a Mockingbird “minus the rape charges, Ku Klux Klan rallies and racial slurs.”

What’s the point?

‘Selma’ is too racy for school superintendent

Nearly 50 years ago, civil rights marchers were attacked by police as they crossed this bridge.

The movie Selma isn’t appropriate for high school students because it contains bad language, says an Alabama superintendent. Hugh Taylor refused to bus history club members and other students to the PG-13 movie.

A web site reports two “F-words” and 26 derogatory terms for African-Americans, Taylor said.

“We’re trying to be good stewards of taxpayers money, and sending them off to something that has immoral, unethical language, that may provoke other things, I don’t feel like that’s appropriate,” he said.

“I understand the movie has a lot of historical value,” Taylor said. “I’m not going to send our DeKalb county kids to a movie that has the F-word in it.”

Teacher suspended for ‘teachable moment’

After a sixth-grade girl used the “n-word” in a note, Lincoln Brown discussed racial slurs with his predominantly black class at a Chicago school. A writing and social studies teacher, he thought it was a “teachable moment.”

Principal Gregory Mason, who’s black, walked in as the white teacher was using the “n-word.” He said nothing at the time. But two weeks later, Mason suspended Brown for five days on charges of “using verbally abusive language to or in front of students” and “cruel, immoral, negligent or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm.”

Last week, Brown filed a federal lawsuit, alleging his free-speech and due process rights were violated.

Brown says he told students about the use of the racial slur in Huckleberry Finn to show “how upsetting such language can be.” He also cited “Spike Lee’s comments about rap music and racial profiling in movies.” Students were engaged in the discussion and later told Brown how much they enjoyed it, he said.

“It’s so sad — if we can’t discuss these issues, we’ll never be able to resolve them,” Brown said Thursday.

I guess we never will.

The son of liberal parents who named him after Abraham Lincoln, Brown, 48, grew up in integrated Hyde Park, where Murray Language Academy is located. He  attended local schools, where he was in the white minority. He’s taught in black neighborhood schools for 21 years. Many parents are supporting him, especially the ones with kids in his after-school Shakespeare program, he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ironically, his lawsuit is titled Brown vs. the Board of Education.

As a former headline writer, I feel for the ESPN headline writer fired for using “chink in the armor” to describe Jeremy Lin’s turnovers. The c-word may not even resonate as a slur to the younger generation. And you’d be amazed at the double entendres that headline writers can miss.

An ESPN sportscaster (with an Asian wife!) also used c-word in armor in reference to Lin. He was suspended.

Banned in Connecticut

For fear of “the n-word,” a Connecticut superintendent has banned a play by a leading black playwright, reports the New York Times. August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” was selected by drama teacher Nina Smith at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School.  In addition to going through the normal channels for approval, she read the play to parents of the mostly black cast and discussed its language with the principal and with a former president of the Waterbury NAACP.

“Joe Turner,” about the big dreams and tumultuous lives of the residents of a Pittsburgh boarding house, drew critical acclaim for both its first Broadway run, in 1988, and a revival there in 2009. It is widely considered one of the best plays in Wilson’s cycle of 10 works about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century; Wilson died in 2005.

Smith “prepared a study guide for classes to talk about the play, and was organizing post-performance talkbacks so the cast and audience members could discuss the work,”  according to the Times.

“Joe Turner” was chosen for performance in February to celebrate black history month. After seven years, the magnet school has students with the maturity to do the play, Smith said. There are enough black actors to fill the roles.

Superintendent David Snead, who’s black, banned the play. However, the Waterbury school board will consider a new policy for school plays on Tuesday, according to the  Republican-American.

Huck Finn and Slave Jim

Huck Finn and Slave Jim float down the Mississippi in search of adventure and freedom in a newly edited version of Mark Twain’s classic designed for schools. Injun Joe is now Indian Joe. Clarence Page eloquently defends Twain’s original language, even though it’s kept the book off some school reading lists.  Teach the conflict, Page writes.

As a result of complains from black children, who say the word causes them pain and inspires bullies, Huckleberry Finn “has begun to be marginalized ironically into Twain’s definition of a ‘classic,’ a work ‘which people praise and don’t read’,” Page writes. Educators dread dealing with hurt feelings.

As a black kid who read “Huck” in a mostly white classroom with a white teacher, I know the unsettling startling pain of seeing the N-word used so casually in print. But I also am eternally grateful to our teacher for helping us to talk about it. She helped us to appreciate the book’s genius of language, vision and, most memorable, its quietly subversive satirical cleverness. It skewers the immorality of white supremacy that it so vividly portrays.

Young Huck’s moral compass is warped by his drunken, brutal father and the culture in which Huck was raised, as his casual use of the N-word illustrates. Escaping his father, he unexpectedly teams up with the slave Jim. He feels guilty at first about helping his neighbor’s “property” escape. Yet as he gets to know Jim and his desire to rescue his wife and children, the slave becomes a better father figure than the one Huck left behind. To me, the book is that rare classic that I not only praise but still enjoy reading.

Editing the language “also risks taking away its edge, the risky subversive power of Twain’s words and story that kept my classmates and me awake, alert and talking about it,” Page writes.

I think Page makes a great case, but I know many more students will read the book if teachers don’t have to deal with the “n-word.” It’s a word I never write on this blog, because I don’t want to deal with it.

In the Obama era, whither Finn and Finch?

Now that Barack Obama is president, novels that use “the N-word,” such as Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men should be dumped from high school reading lists, argues an English teacher in Washington state.

He’d encourage students to read these classics, but wouldn’t assign them, writes John Foley.

Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.

Huck Finn is too slow for modern readers and uses challenging Southern dialect, writes Foley.  Mockingbird is “dated” because Atticus Finch, tells his daughter not to use the N-word because it’s “common.”  Foley doesn’t mention the “N-word” in Of Mice and Men, but there is a black ranch hand so it’s probably in there.  Foley thinks a book set in the Depression won’t resonate with today’s teens, though World War II is timely.

As replacements, he suggests David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (prejudice against Japanese-Americans during World War II),  Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (Vietnam War) and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Like Huck, “Dove” involves an epic journey of discovery and loss and addresses an important social issue — the terrible treatment of women in the Old West. That issue does not rank as high as slavery on our national list of shame, but it definitely makes the list.

This seems awfully reductive to me: The three classics aren’t just social issue books. And I’d classify Snow Falling on Cedars as OK but not great. I haven’t read the other two: Frankly, Lonesome Dove was too long — and I’m a McMurtry fan.

Via The Daily Grind.

Update: “I don’t see kids reading,” says McMurtry, who owns a used and rare book store in his home town of Archer City, Texas.

John Foley responds to the criticism, adding that he’d also remove Gatsby from the reading list because the spoiled characters piss him off.  I think they’re supposed to.