Sunday, December 4, 2016

Huck Finn, again

I spoke Friday at the Oak Park Public Library. They were having a staff development day (from about 8 a.m.-2 p.m.). My topic was Intellectual Freedom.

Among other things, I talked about the history of the Library Bill of Rights. It was created in 1938 by Forrest Spaulding, then director of the Des Moines Public Library. I've written elsewhere about some of the parallels of that time to today.

When I finished my talk, I got a couple of interview requests from the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. The issue was Accomac, Virginia, where a parent called for the removal from school curriculum and library both the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? Because of the presence of what would now be considered racial slurs.

On the one hand, I was sitting in the one time home town of Ernest Hemingway, who said, "“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, are genuine and undisputed classics, which seems to mean that they have the power to keep infuriating one generation after another.

There's more to those books than just the use of a few phrases. On the other hand, the use of the N-word is indeed offensive language today, and I quite understand the awkwardness for a person of color having to hear it in the classroom.

So I said several things:
  • The book doesn't have to be read aloud in class. We can be sensitive to changes in the times without trying to suppress books altogether.
  • There is an historical context to the book. I'm sure that most teachers set that up, and the use of language is one teaching point.
  • Classics should be taught, but classics aren't the end of literature. They constitute something like a minimal exposure to writing. Teaching such books can be coupled with other books, written by black authors of the time, or contemporary authors.
The truth is that literature, and human experience, is more than just the writing of dead white people. Free speech means an openness to new classics, not censorship of the old.

At any rate, I found the director, board, and staff of the Oak Park Public Library to be forward thinking, highly competent, intelligent, and fun. I appreciated the opportunity to spend some time with them. And it's clear that we're going to need smart, passionate, and proud librarians in the days to come.

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