Book called into question for racial slur
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Feb 26, 2013, 11:21
“When I was in 11th grade our class read Huckleberry Finn and in Huckleberry Finn the n-word is just prevalent throughout the book. It’s everywhere and I remember being the only black person in the class. I was the only African American in the class and here we are reading aloud Huck Finn and I hated it.”
Dr. Deborah Goodwyn, chairwoman of the Department of Language and Literature at Virginia State University, recalls a memory from her high school days in South Hampton. It is a memory that has stayed with her years later. It is a memory one local father did not want for his son, a student at Carter G. Woodson Middle School.
Dr. Kim Evans, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the School Board received a complaint from a parent, who other media outlets are reporting as Francisco Johnson, about Mildred Taylor’s “The Well.” The complaint was in regards to the use of the n-word throughout the work.
“After we received that complaint, we addressed his immediate concern because our first concern is to listen to the complaint and we have to take those things seriously, and in order to act we have to investigate it,” Evans said. “We have to make sure that we have all the facts and we know what we’re dealing with.”
The book, which received a Jane Addams Book Award in 1996 and is an American Library Association notable book, was being used in the classroom to address some of the lessons associated with Black History Month. Evans said the book has been used for several years without a complaint.
“I think it is good when parents are involved in their child’s education and I think parents should be advocates for their children so I understand the father expressing his concern so I applaud him for doing that,” Goodwyn said. “I also understand the teacher’s position because the teacher picked a book by a notable author, a book that had been taught with no incident before, so I can see why the teacher picked it.”
Goodwyn, who has been at VSU for 15 years and has been teaching literature for almost 40 years, said many great works of literature have been banned at one point or another.
According to the American Library Association, some of the most challenged works of literature have been “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger, “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee and “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker, to name a few.
“Just because a book is banned doesn’t mean that it’s not great literature,” Goodwyn said. “So I don’t think pulling the book detracts from what the book has to offer. It can still be a great book even if it’s a banned book.”
“The Well,” which takes places in rural Mississippi in the early 1990s, is about the Logan family who shares their well water with their neighbors during a drought. The family then encounters problems when trying to share with one neighbor, who torments them because of the color of their skin.
Goodwyn said the book carries a positive message of anti-racism and moral fortitude despite the n-word being found on the pages.
Both Goodwyn and Evans said there are a lot of factors to be considered when examining works of literature being used in the classroom, the most important being the maturity of the students sitting at the desks.
“A lot would depend on the maturity of the students because some students are mature enough to have that conversation, other’s aren’t,” Goodwyn said. “It depends on the maturity of the students and how it’s presented. ... If it made the students uncomfortable, maybe that wasn’t the right book to use and I’m not sure the classroom is always the best place where you can talk about racial slurs and respect for all people, but you have got to look at the maturity of the students and how that lesson is being presented.”
Evans said she believes the book was being used in the classroom and was not in possession of the student.
“That’s one of the things you really need to consider,” Evans said. “Will the child be able to handle this? Will they be able to see it, to learn the lesson from it? In this setting this was appropriate and in today’s society it’s not. Will they be able to make that connection or rather that disconnection?”
Evans went on to explain that supplemental materials in the classroom, such as “The Well,” are approved by the school’s principal before being used.
Due to the way the parent made a complaint about “The Well,” the book can still be found in the school. Evans explained for a book to be completely removed from the shelves, a formal complaint must be made.
“We have not received a formal complaint so our process says if a parent wants to have an instructional resource reconsidered, there is a process,” Evans said. “So our responsibility is to follow the School Board and the School Board regulation with that.”
At the time the complaint was made, Superintendent Dr. John Fahey released the following statement: “Hopewell City Public Schools did receive a concern about a literary selection that is being read in one of our classrooms. We take these complaints very seriously and have pulled the text to review it and make sure it is appropriate for our students.”
Goodwyn said her experience in 11th grade has changed the way she views Mark Twain. She said she did not care for the book when she became a teacher.
“I can see the value of the literature but I can also see perhaps how such a work would affect the child and the attitudes of the child,” Goodwyn said.
Evans said, above all, the school system’s number one priority is to educate students in the most comfortable environment possible.
“We do not want them to be uncomfortable while they are learning and we don’t want to unintentionally offend, and when concerns come to us, we want to address them and help make the school system the best that it can be,” Evans said.
Goodwyn said even though this book caused some problems in the classroom, she does not think it has changed the message of Black History Month for students.
“There’s so much out there, so much great literature out there and so much that we can celebrate so that African American History Month can be a time for us to come together,” Goodwyn said. “And anything that’s going to cause division, perhaps anything that’s going to cause division instead of reflection, we should probably choose not to include. We want to celebrate our diversity during African American History Month, not cause divisions.”