The madness of banning Huckleberry Finn

After a single complaint from Marie Rothstein-Williams, a mother from Accomack County in Virginia, the county’s public schools and libraries have temporarily withdrawn copies of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Twain is considered the father of American literature, and Lee’s famous novel is, among other things, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. But Rothstein-Williams argued she was ‘not disputing this is great literature’, but rather raising the point that there are so many ‘racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that’.

Both books exposed racial attitudes and divisions in the US, so the word ‘nigger’, or the ‘n-word’, gets bandied about with great regularity – 217 times in Huckleberry Finn alone, warned Rothstein-Williams. Actually, says the Christian Science Monitor, it has 219 n-words. But who’s counting?

For Rothstein-Williams, these classics are simply ‘not acceptable’ works of literature with which to educate the 5,000 students in Accomack County (of which 37 per cent are black). She wonders how children are being taught, and whether schools are somehow ‘validating that these words are acceptable’. Worst of all, she says she is concerned about the psychological effects on African-American children, because the books had disturbed her teenage biracial son. ‘We don’t need it in the school system’, she said.

Withdrawing, and effectively banning, certain works of literature from the curriculum, making them inaccessible to thousands of children, especially black children, is a travesty. My dictionary describes a philistine as an individual who is smugly narrow of mind, and of conventional morality, whose tastes indicate a lack of, and indifference to, cultural and aesthetic values. Rothstein-Williams’ perspective can aptly be described as philistine. If she’d read the books, she would know that both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird are great works of anti-racist literature – they are important books for children to read.

Rothstein-Williams seems to have a very low opinion of young people’s ability to engage with challenging literature. She appears to be far more concerned with the new president-elect, Donald Trump, than with the education of kids in the US.

Yes, the word nigger is very powerful; but it’s a crucial word to understand in relation to racial politics in the US. Children who are ignorant of its history and meaning place themselves at risk in the real world. In the current hypersensitive political climate, it’s quite possible that, if they say a wrong word in ignorance, they could lose their job, have their reputation destroyed – or worse.

Banning books from schools and libraries because you find them offensive will not put an end to racism, nor will it benefit African-American children. These are not only important pieces of US literature – they’re wonderful stories that children have enjoyed for years. Accomack County public schools and libraries should take some good advice from the American Library Association, which urges people ‘to fight censorship, keep books available in libraries, and promote the freedom to read’. In other words, don’t hide books away – read and share them.

Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.

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