My fourteen-year-old sister loves to take barely concealed jibes at my taste in books, which according to her is stale, lame and uninteresting - or in other words, not like John Grisham's "The Firm." I confess to being a fan of classic literature, and th e day I have my own leather bound copy of the Riverside Shakespeare and can flip through the gold-plated pages and smell fresh ink on parchment-thin, crinkling paper, I will be instantly transported to an earthly paradise. (My sister likes the Riverside Shakespeare, too - it's thick, heavy, perfect for combat).
So when the occasional book banner pops up in public schools, I wonder if perhaps the banner is reading classic literature on the same literal, simplistic level that people read books like "The Firm." The latest book banner is Kathy Monteiro, mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter, who emerged last week in Tempe and proclaimed that "Huckleberry Finn" and Faulkner's short story, "A Rose For Emily," should be banned from public school curriculums because they contain the word "nigger."
No one likes to see the "n" word in print, let alone say it aloud in a classroom. The word seems to cause black and white students alike to shift uncomfortably in their seats and cast their eyes at the floor. It is more than simply a pejorative term - it encapsulates in six letters centuries of demeaning and dehumanizing treatment suffered by black Americans at the hands of whites. Yet Kathy Monteiro's instant solution embraces naivety - if the "n" word disappears from the classroom, then racial insensiti vity and prejudice will inevitably follow.
When Mark Twain wrote "Huckleberry Finn," he wasn't trying to be the Howard Stern of early American literature. Mark Twain used words like "nigger" simply because they were commonplace terms, the popular slang of the 19th century. He graphically depicted the demeaning treatment of black Americans (specifically of Jim) in order to criticize this treatment. The themes of Twain's novel transcend writing mechanics; what students remember after reading Huck Finn is not that the novel included the "n" word, but the fact that Jim, supposedly inferior to all the other characters, was more compassionate, more insightful, more HUMAN than any of them. In this context, the "inhumanity" of Jim - and all blacks - seems ludicrous.
In Twain's novel, the "n" word acted as slang and as social commentary; today, the word serves as a good kick in the pants for parents and students alike. Hearing that word reminds us that equal opportunity in America once only applied to a minute few, an d that even in the 20th century, racial and cultural prejudice remain significant issues.
If we remove literature from the classroom which contains the word "nigger," citing racial insensitivity as our motive, then we must be consistent in the kinds of literature we choose to teach in public schools. The implied rape scene in "A Streetcar Name d Desire" hardly seems appropriate for high school students, and will undoubtedly disturb the girls in the classroom. Shakespeare's plays contain murder, incest, blood and gore; Jane Eyre details the intimate desires of a Victorian woman who attempts to h ave an affair with a married man. Actually, any work written prior to the civil rights movement is bound to contain either racial slurs, demeaning incidents, or material which degrades women and denies them a personal and sexual identity. Once all of the standard, canonized literature makes the hit list, what's left to teach in schools? (John Grisham calls from the corridors - "The Firm" stands alone).
Should we brush slavery and racial discrimination under the carpet, as Ms. Monteiro suggests? Should we pretend that words like "nigger" never existed, that segregated schools were barely historical footnotes, that the leaders and champions of the civil r ights movement really had nothing to fight about? Cutting out the historical details of the dehumanization of black Americans trivializes their struggle. Authors like Mark Twain did not present a false, rosy picture of the world, and we cannot deceive our children with such a picture. Works like "Huckleberry Finn" stir us out of our complacency, make us think, and most importantly, help us to remember.
My sister is a smart girl - she'll grow out of her obsession with John Grisham and use the Riverside Shakespeare for something other than a weapon. She will grow up and come to realize the significance of great literature; she will recognize the struggles and triumphs made apparent in passages which are difficult, even painful to read. But unfortunately, there are other people who will never grow up.
Jessie Fillerup is a music education junior. Her column appears Mondays.