Satire or Serious?

A recent guest columnist in the Seattle P-I seemingly advocated to remove classics which have racially insulting language. However, it’s difficult to tell if the article is very subtle satire or an extremely PC position. What do you think? Here is John Foley’s editorial:

The time has arrived to update the literature we use in high school classrooms. Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, and novels that use the “N-word” repeatedly need to go.

To a certain extent, this saddens me, because I love “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” All are American classics, and my students read them as part of approved sophomore and junior units, as do millions of students across the nation.

They all must go.

I hope they go to private and public libraries and remain in high school classrooms. I would keep copies in my own classroom and encourage students to read them. But they don’t belong on the curriculum. Not anymore. Those books are old, and we’re ready for new.

Even if Huck Finn didn’t contain the N-word and demeaning stereotypes, it would remain a tough sell to students accustomed to fast-paced everything. The novel meanders along slower than the Mississippi River and uses a Southern dialect every bit as challenging as Shakespeare’s Old English.

Explaining that Twain wasn’t a racist — or at least didn’t hate African-Americans (he had a well-documented prejudice against Native Americans) — is a daunting challenge. I explain that Jim, a black man, is the hero of the book. I tell them Huck eventually sees the error of his ways, apologizes to Jim and commits himself to helping him escape slavery. Yes, I tell them, he does all this while continuing to refer to Jim by the demeaning word, but Twain was merely being realistic.

Many students just hear the N-word. This is particularly true, of course, of African-American students. I have not taught Huck Finn in a predominantly black classroom, and I think it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do so effectively. With few exceptions, all the black students in my classes over the years have appeared very uncomfortable when I’ve discussed these matters at the beginning of the unit. And I never want to rationalize Huck Finn to an angry African-American mom again as long as I breathe.

John Steinbeck’s “Mice” and Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird” don’t belong on the curriculum, either. Atticus Finch, the heroic attorney in Lee’s novel, tells his daughter not to use the N-word because it’s “common.” That might’ve been an enlightened attitude for a Southerner during the Great Depression, but is hopelessly dated now.

What books should replace these classics? The easiest call is for “Mockingbird.” David Guterson’s fine “Snow Falling on Cedars” has similar themes and many parallels, and since the novel is set in the San Juan Islands, it would hold more interest for Washington students than the Alabama setting of Lee’s novel.

I think a good substitute for “Mice” would be Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam novel “Going After Cacciato.” Like George and Lennie in Steinbeck’s novel, Cacciato dreams of peace and a better world. And the Vietnam War is a more recent — and arguably more painful — era in American history than the Depression, and one of more interest to teens.

“Huck Finn” is the toughest book to replace; it’s so utterly original. The best choice, in my view, would be 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.

Some might call this apostasy; I call it common sense. Obama’s victory signals that Americans are ready for change. Let’s follow his lead and make a change that removes the N-word from the high school curriculum.

John Foley of Vancouver is an English teacher at Ridgefield High School in southern Washington.

11 thoughts on “Satire or Serious?

  1. Angela

    I believe it’s sincere. John says “I never want to rationalize Huck Finn to an angry African-American mom again as long as I breathe.” Sounds like he had been personally attacked for using classic literature and is tired of taking the heat for it.

  2. Marc Lebendig

    I really want to believe it’s satirical, but I agree with Angela. He spends a little too much time rationalizing the replacements. But wow, just…wow. Guess we better get rid of Douglass, Wright, and Ellison while we’re at it, unless those are different for some reason…

  3. Ira Creasman

    I’d appreciate it, Mrs. Chili, if you would explain a few of the ways in which he is wrong.

    I agree with you, I think that it’s wrong to remove these books from the reading lists of high school students because of the “n-word”. It’s not like this is a word we should hide from, but rather, shed a bright light upon.

    Being new to teaching, I’d really like to hear some reasons for rejecting Mr. Foley’s proposal, from some folks who’ve been in education for a while.


  4. Little Swallow

    I think it’s sincere, and while I may not agree with him, I think he poses a good argument with valid points — except I’m not sure I agree with his assumptions on what would be more interesting to teens. Why would the Vietnam War be more interesting than the Depression during these economic times? I would argue both periods are quite recent and have modern-day parallels that could help students relate to another time period. And why would students in Washington like a book less because of its setting in the South? Coming from Idaho (also in the Pacific Northwest) and having read To Kill a Mockingbird before leaving that area for college, I would say I was *more* interested in a setting that was quite different from my own familiar world, and even more interested in the many similarities between my home and a region across the country. However, this is not to say that the setting was the main thing that drew me into this book …

    Also, not even getting into why these books are valuable curriculum choices, it’s very important for an educated person* to understand changing language, values, and acceptable behavior, especially since it is part of our nation’s history, and fairly recent history at that.

    *By this, of course, I mean that any person should understand this, because ideally any given person would also be an educated person, even if that’s not the case in the world today.

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