Recently, a Duluth school district in Minnesota decided to drop Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its required reading list because of the books’ use of the n-word (The books will remain on a list that students have the option of reading). While this is an important step in the right direction, it barely scratches the surface of a more deeply troubling issue. Many white-authored classics are racist and damaging to students of colour, and their usage of racial slurs is merely the tip of the iceberg for why texts such as these should be left off of literature syllabi.
Both “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” incorporate the common white-saviour/”magical negro or native” trope whereby indigenous, brown and black characters exist as mere devices to help white characters attain moral enlightenment. Jim in “Huck Finn” and Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” like other indigenous, black and brown characters in the predominantly white-authored literary canon, are flat and grossly stereotypical. They lack their own agency, autonomy and humanity, and exist in deplorable conditions only to be pitied by more vividly drawn white characters, victims whose victimhood is the crux of the frequently employed white saviour plot. The more helpless these characters are, the greater, more courageous, more impressive the white saviour’s rescue seems.
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Some critics argue that the Duluth school district’s decision was a mistake because “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” teach students about racism. This is only the case, of course, if by “students” we mean white students. Indigenous, brown and black students don’t learn anything about racism written from the oppressor’s point of view, and the portrayal of such flagrant racism hardly reflects the reality of what many indigenous and students of colour endure in their daily lives.
If people can evolve to become more inclusive and less harmful, shouldn't the predominantly white literary canon evolve, too?
Instead, white savior books reinforce the extremely demeaning and derogatory notion that indigenous, black, and brown people exist only to serve the needs, goals and aspirations of white people – which when read could increase students’ stress levels, while also negatively impacting their self-esteem and limiting their ability to see themselves as powerful agents of change in the world.
Novels that incorporate the white saviour trope also exemplify poor literary craft. Take “To Kill a Mockingbird”. In the book, a white lawyer named Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. After his trial and conviction, Tom attempts to escape from prison and is shot and killed.
Tom, as a character, exists only to be saved by Atticus and to attempt to teach the white community of Maycomb, specifically, Atticus’ two children Jem and Scout, about racism. “As you grow older,” Atticus says, “you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
In a graduate school creative writing class, I asked students to name some of the characteristics of Atticus Finch. Their adjectives filled an entire dry-erase board. Generous. Intellectual. Forthright. Moral. Diligent. When I asked them to do the same for Tom Robinson, they stumbled a bit before suggesting selfless and kind, for the occasional free labour he did for his accuser, Mayella Ewell. Other than what Tom says on the stand during his trial, where he is playing the role of victim to serve this white saviour plot, we learn little else about him. We know nothing about what kind of father he is, what interests he has. Harper Lee gives Tom little substance or dimension.
The movement to diversify and decolonise reading lists is nothing new. We Need DiverseBooks is a grassroots organisation with the goal “to produce and promote books that reflect and honour the lives of all young people.” The twitter hashtag #ownvoices demands the publishing industry seek out and publish books written by authors from marginalised communities about characters from their own communities.
Unfortunately, when it comes to reading lists for language arts’ curricula, very little has changed. My own high school and middle school children have reading lists almost identical to the lists from my English classes in the 1980s and 90s.
For some people, “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are beloved classics. But nostalgia is not a good reason to keep them on literature syllabi. What we teach students about people from marginalised communities should be authentic; and to be authentic, it should come from marginalised authors and the richly drawn characters they create. Indigenous, black and brown characters shouldn’t simply serve as targets of white violence or lessons for white morality. They should play central roles in their own stories, with a full range of emotions and personalities, absent what Toni Morrison has called the “white gaze,” the presumption that people of colour’s lives “have no meaning, no depth,” beyond white people’s imagination or interpretation of them.
Thankfully, literature is not rocket science. We don’t need and have never needed texts that incorporate racist tropes. Authors of myriad racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds have been writing about their own communities as far back in time as white authors. If Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” or Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” replaces “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird,” students, particularly white students, will not only be reading more rigorous, realistic and layered books about the black community, they will understand bigotry at a deeper, systemic level. The same argument can be made for replacing EM Forester’s “A Passage to India,” (yet another book about a brown man being accused of raping a White woman) with Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” dumping John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” in favour of Ana Castillo’s “The Mixquiahuala Letters,” and replacing Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins” with Kristiana Kahakauwila’s “This is Paradise.”
We don’t need nor have we ever needed to teach books written by white authors that capitalise on inaccurate stereotypes and vulgar and barbaric tropes about marginalised communities. What’s more, we can also teach books about marginalised communities that celebrate joy and love, health and success. Indigenous, black and brown stories don’t need to always be about suffering to teach valuable lessons about sociopolitical issues.
In the meantime, it’s high time educators realised that our policies about racism in school texts must go far above and beyond a conversation about racial slurs. Indigenous and students of colour deserve to have the same privilege in education that white students have always had – the opportunity to examine and imagine the full extent of their humanity in literature. If people can evolve to become more inclusive and less harmful, shouldn’t the predominantly white literary canon evolve, too?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.