I’m getting pretty annoyed with the trend in just-slightly-left-of-center media of conflating “banning” books with both simple selection of curriculum materials and the campus “safe space” conversation; with this post as an example.

I re-read Huck Finn recently, and damn right it made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t uncomfortable because it portrayed the historical fact of slavery, or because it used the  n-word in a way that was unremarkable in the time and place of its writing, or because it acknowledged class- and race-based dialectal differences. No, what made me uncomfortable was its bald-faced fucking racism. Jim is an adult and Huck is a child, yet Jim is shown throughout as passive, stupid, superstitious, easily frightened, etc., etc., in contrast to Huck’s leadership, gumption, and ingenuity. Jim’s role in the book could pretty much have been filled by a dog. Perhaps Mark Twain intended to portray this infantilization or dehumanization as a horrifying result of situational factors, as itself a call to humanitarian action; if so, that doesn’t make it onto the page. What makes it onto the page is smirking, superior mockery. It’s not pretty.

Now, imagine that you’re the one responsible for building a high school lit curriculum. One the one hand, you have a bunch of young minds to shape, and on the other, you have the whole of literature. What an opportunity! You decide that you want to get something in there about race in America–because, you know, it matters, and also because you realize there’s actually been a lot written about it, when you start looking. So you’re going to pick … something written by a white person that mainly stands out as “relatively not racist for its time and place,” like Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird*? Against the whole body of literature written by African Americans? Against the whole body of American literature down to the present day? Really?

The school was being selective. That’s what teachers do: they select a limited set of materials that they think are worth spending their limited class time on. Calling it a “ban” when a school swaps one book for another is based the implicit assumption that the book being removed has deep and irreplaceable literary value, and that the content being objected to is either balanced by or actually contributes to that value. (Nobody calls it a “ban” when a high-school library fails to purchase Fifty Shades of Grey.) But the thing about Huck Finn is: much, or most, of our judgment of its great literary value–our sense that it’s a “classic”–is based on the fact that we were told to read it in high school. And we were told to read it in high school not because it was one of the five or fifteen or whatever very best books that exist, but because it was an engaging adventure story that was also marginally less racist than some other books. Not excessively so; not in a way that really challenged us. But a generation or two ago, “marginally less racist” seemed pretty good–good enough, against the backdrop of curricula of the day, to argue that the content that some found objectionable (that is, the proposition that black people should be considered human, if not actually equal in judgment or cognition or initiative to an inexperienced and uneducated white child) contributed to its value.

I don’t think that argument still holds. I think we can do better. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass seems like a fine choice. There’s also this. Or this. Or this. Or this.

*I also recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s another post; but I think we’re going to have to go with “marginally less racist” for that one, too.