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.