In Charlotte County, Florida, the NAACP has taken up the issue of books taught in schools that contain the n-word. Members took a list of books including The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Their Eyes Were Watching God and other texts to the school board. They claimed they don’t want the books banned, but to make the board aware of the content.
Why do schools require students to read books that often contain racist content? Part of the reason is that many books that have a lot of racist content are included in required and “classic” literature. We’re required to read the classics, and often the classics are written in the context of racist and sexist landscape. This involves racist characters, racist language, and often racist authors.
But encouraging the banning or removing of racist texts from curriculum isn’t doing anything to eradicate racism. It’s never a question of what’s being taught as much as it’s a question of how it is being taught. It was important for the NAACP to bring up the texts to the Charlotte County board because school administration needs to be reminded of the gaps in their curriculum. Literature is often peeled away from its historical context, and students aren’t taught racist literature in the context of slavery, colonialism, and the oppression of communities of color.
Another question of course, is how should teachers and schools deal with the use of racial slurs in text. Even in college, I had professors reading racial slurs out loud, never stopping to note how it may sound out loud for others. I once asked a white professor if she would have felt as comfortable repeatedly reading the n-word out loud had she had any black students in her class. “I definitely would have thought about it more,” was her response.
Finally, we need to shift the thinking of what is considered required literature in schools. We need to see a diverse curriculum that examines different narratives written by different authors. And we need to teach young people how to talk about race and racism in fiction so that they can learn to talk about it in their own lives.