• Adithi Sumitran

Literary Racism

Romeo And Juliet. 1984. Fahrenheit 451. What do all these stories have in common? Well, if one were to look deeply into it, there are certainly numerous similarities between the works. But on the surface, there are two glaring commonalities that seem troubling to behold. One, they are all staples of the high school curriculum. And two, no people of color feature prominently in any of the works.


It may seem unreasonable to demand that from these books; after all, Shakespeare wasn’t writing for a modern audience. And yet, it stands to reason that literature being taught to students should reflect the diversity and beliefs present among those students. Schools have pointedly retained much of their literature though, arguing that many deal with topics of race already. However, the books they choose to represent diversity are eyebrow-raising, to say the least. From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to To Kill A Mockingbird, high school curriculum poorly represents the diversity of America, especially when there are much better alternatives out there.


The Argument Against Huckleberry Finn


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is one of the most widely taught works of American literature, covered in 11th grade English classes around the United States. The story details the journey of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn who migrates down the Mississippi River, and shows how his views on race change along with his relationship to the slave, Jim. The impact of the novel cannot be understated, as critics have sung its praises for years. T.S. Eliot, for one, called it “a masterpiece,” while Ernest Hemingway insisted that it is the root of all American literature. And yet, despite its reputation as a work of art unparalleled in the modern era, Huckleberry Finn can be denounced just as easily as racist and antiquated. While the story is definitely ahead of its time, its “time” was 1885, and what could have been considered forward-thinking then seems almost backwards now. For instance, Jim’s initial characterization is that of people of color at the time: simple-minded. Perhaps this would be tolerable if Jim proved himself to be more intelligent and resourceful than that, but by the end of the novel, Jim hasn’t really changed at all—it’s Huck’s perception of him that has. This is a serious issue, because Jim is one of the main characters of the novel, and the story revolves around him as much as it does Huck. By not allowing Jim to change as a character, Mark Twain reinforces the archaic stereotypes that defined Jim from the beginning. In addition, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer see no problem in stringing Jim along, taking advantage of his lack of knowledge to have fun, further cementing racial stereotypes and dividing the characters. But there’s an even bigger problem with the book that has caused discussions to arise about the merits of teaching it: the N-word. The N-word is used in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 219 times. In a roughly 300 page book, that means that this derogatory phrase appears nearly every page. Some argue that there is value in teaching the novel despite the use of the slur, since the discomfort it creates provokes discussion, but one has to take into account the fact that the book was written by a white author for a white audience about a white protagonist, and was not intended to be discussed or consumed by a larger demographic. As such, the racist undertones within the novel can be extremely harmful and out-of-touch, which is understandable given the time period it was written in. But in the 21st century, schools must ask themselves whether a novel that repeatedly stereotypes and demeans its one character of color is a good way to teach about race relations.


The Argument Against To Kill A Mockingbird


A Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill A Mockingbird is hailed as a poignant tale of the impacts of racism on American society. The novel revolves around a young white girl named Scout Finch and her observations of a black man’s rape trial that ultimately leads to his death, showing how the race of the accused impacts the fairness of his trial. While there’s no question that the novel is well-written and clear with its message, a major problem lies in the presentation of the content. To Kill A Mockingbird feels sanitized and non-assertive, often praising its white characters for doing what should be the bare minimum, treating characters of color with respect. It lauds Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, for daring to take on the case of a black man, and even though this case is lost unfairly, panegyrizes it as a step forward due to the hesitancy of the jurors to make the decision entirely on race. Once again, this is revolutionary for the time period it was written in, but in the 21st century, does not seem like a valid portrayal of modern race relations. Quite frankly, To Kill a Mockingbird is, at points, feel-good nonsense for people who want to believe that antiracism is showing even the tiniest modicum of respect toward people of color. And while that may have been revolutionary in the 1960s, it is most certainly not what is needed in the current political climate.


There’s another problem with To Kill a Mockingbird that involves race: the portrayal of people of color. While the white characters in the novel earn the respect of the reader through their distinguished positions, like Atticus Finch being a highly-respected lawyer or Alexandra Finch being an intimidating society-woman, characters of color like Tom Robinson earn only the pity of the reader. Those who peruse the novel in the hopes of finding intelligent black people who succeed in their aspirations will be left wanting. And sure, that’s not the point of the story. But I challenge you to name even one piece of high school literature that shows people of color in this way. When’s the last time you read a novel in school about a dignified Black businessman? A wealthy Latina heiress? A pioneering Chinese leader?


The facts are, you probably haven’t. So in the modern era, we have to wonder, is it really valuable to read another novel that glorifies the struggles of white people in furthering the cause of helpless people of color, or should we be reading about hard-working, strong minded people of color who overcome their challenges by themselves? Books, of course, have an impact on our lives, so if we want to show that we’ve truly moved past harmful racial roles and portrayals, it’s time to leave To Kill A Mockingbird in the dust.


What Novels Can Take Their Place


Replacing staples of American literature in school curriculum is no easy task. Novels picked must be historically or culturally relevant, as well as understandably written and thematically complex. Luckily, there are a plethora of complex novels written by people of color that deal with race in non problematic ways that could easily fit these requirements. Here are some of the best picks for replacement options.


Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: This novel, written in 1952, discusses the problems faced by African Americans in the time period and perfectly balances bizarreness with heavily introspective prose. The educated black protagonist spends much of the novel encountering racism despite his own accomplishments, and realizes that to many, he is invisible. Invisible Man is perfect for high school curriculum because it deals with many issues that people of color faced in the past from the perspective of a person of color, something that is rarely found in a high school book list, as well as issues they face at the present, like police brutality. It also refuses to sanitize the content described, which can make it a jarring read, but ultimately, a necessary one.


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: This is a good example of a novel that, while being heavily impacted by race, does not primarily focus on it. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a heavy, but incredible work of fiction, revolving around Janie Crawford’s desire for independence and struggle with the inescapable burden of being a woman in the 1930s. The novel does a good job of showing that neither people of color nor caucasian people are inherently good or better than others, but that their races still serve a purpose in defining them.


The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan: Dipping into some more modern literature, one does not have to look farther than Amy Tan’s most famous work to find valuable discussions about race. The Joy Luck Club follows the stories of different Chinese-American families and talks about the relationships between generations as well as the immigrant struggle. Written in the vignette style and structured like a game of mahjong, this book offers a refreshingly familiar take on American life to immigrants and a surprisingly different one to non-immigrants.


Final Thoughts


Some may consider the discussion about changing high school curriculum to be unnecessary, or a futile attempt at pandering. This is a fundamental misconception that greatly hinders change. While it is certainly true that schoolbooks are nowhere near as important as healthcare or police reform, when trying to create a more accepting world, representation is crucial. High school literature is quite literally the last books anyone is forced to read. After that point, reading becomes a choice, not a requirement. So when we create a curriculum, we should bear in mind the possibility that the people we’re teaching to will never read another book again. With that knowledge, does it really make sense to teach sanitized, ancient literature, which does not represent modern people or their views? Frankly, the thought is ridiculous. High school literature should be challenging, both from a literary and political point-of-view. It should not aim to comfort, it should show America as it is, show the people as they are. To do anything less is insulting to the diversity of the nation.

So, it’s no longer up for debate. Change must be brought to the American curriculum, and it must be brought now.


Resources


With all this in mind, one might wonder how they can get their school’s curriculum to be altered. There are a few ways to do it, the best of which would be directly contacting your district’s officials and asking them how you might go about the process, as curriculum is often set by the state. Another way to fix it would be to ask your teachers or principal if they can add additional books to the curriculum, since it is much harder to remove books than to add them. If these strategies fail to yield results, you can’t go wrong with a good old-fashioned protest! Schools are more likely to make changes when pressure is brought on by their community, and for an issue as important as this, the pressure is necessary.

References

  1. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/ralph-ellisons-invisible-man-as-a-parable-of-our-time

  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/books/07huck.html

  3. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/09/books/huckleberry-finn-alive-at-100.html