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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

N-word in the Classroom

So how do you, folks, feel about To Kill a Mockingbird being pulled off high school curricula?

In all honesty, I wouldn’t want to teach any book that contains the n-word in any context or to make any point whatsoever in an 8-grade classroom. I’m not seeing any benefits that would outweigh the discomfort. It’s not even a world literary masterpiece that every cultured person needs to know by the age of 15 or else. It’s an ok book for kids that can be a lot of fun to read but that’s hardly indispensable or exceptionally urgent. 

I remember a class in Ukrainian literature back when I was 14-15. We were reading a novella by a great Ukrainian writer. The problem was that one of the characters used a word that is perfectly innocent in Ukrainian but obscene in Russian. It’s been many years, I’m a literary critic, but all I remember about that author and his novella is the obscenity because that’s how the teenage mind works. 

If I were a teacher and I had a choice, I wouldn’t teach this novel in high school. I wouldn’t teach it in college either but that’s strictly because I personally find it boring and lacking in artistic merit. 

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34 thoughts on “N-word in the Classroom

  1. I wouldn’t teach it in college either but that’s strictly because I personally find it boring and lacking in artistic merit.

    I’m glad to hear this. I read it some years ago, because it’s considered an important novel in the US, but I found it overly sentimental and moderately boring. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, of course.

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  2. It wasn’t on high school curricula when I was in high school though were expected to read Black Like Me (more journalism than literature from what I remember).

    I’m surprised TKAM hasn’t been attacked for a lot of it depending on a false rape accusation. Maybe attacking it for the use of ‘nigger’ is an end run around that?

    There’s also The Artificial Nigger by Flannery O’Conner (a writer I generally love) though I don’t think that’s appropriate for high school for reasons unrelated to the title.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Artificial_Nigger

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    • Stringer Bell on said:

      “I’m surprised TKAM hasn’t been attacked for a lot of it depending on a false rape accusation.”

      Literally nobody outside your MRA bubble has ever thought this when reading the book.

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    • Stringer Bell on said:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till

      14 year old kid gets brutally lynched for whistling at a white woman (which turned out to be false).

      Cliff’s concern trolling: ‘Oh no, why aren’t white women in solidarity with their sister? I was led to believe that women never lie about these things. Told ya, western feminism is inconsistent and useless. Case closed!’

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    • Shakti on said:

      Are you kidding? MRAs are usually racist as hell (they pretty much are synonymous with red pillers and I’ve read enough of those forums to know) and they’re not going to stan for a book with a girl protagonist.

      Both Black Like Me and To Kill A Mockingbird suffer from the assumption you need a white person at the center of a story in order to sympathize with black people. But perhaps people continue to teach TKAM because that’s where a lot of white people are. I can’t say any of the kids in my high school class understood Invisible Man. I think it went over their heads even more than The Scarlett Letter.

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      • Stringer Bell on said:

        It takes a lot of contempt for women’s intelligence to assert that a reasonable reaction after reading that book would be outrage from feminists about false rape charges being one of the themes in the book. This is 100% trolling, and if he really believes that, he’s got brainworms.

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    • Cliff Arroyo, why? False rape accusations, or accusations of wolf-whistling, etc., were at the base of a lot of lynchings, not to mention trials. Protecting Our Womanhood has long been one of the standard excuses for oppressing the masses, going to war, and so on. That’s why the book uses this scenario (I’d have thought this would have been obvious).

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      • “why? False rape accusations….”

        Yes, I know all that, men use women’s “purity” or “dignity” as excuses to carry out their worst impulses all over the world (and in the US this was used in the worst ways in the US South with a heapin’ helpin’ of racism).

        But the current feminist dogma is that women never (or virtually never) lie about rape, that is that rape allegations are almost all entirely true (the whole “I believe her!” shtick). Shakesville and feministing are quite clear about that and IIRC Shakesville still believes the Rolling Stone story and/or mattress girl and maybe the Ghomeshi case in Canada.

        It’s weird that a well-meaning and at one time almost universally acclaimed book contradicts modern orthodoxy in such a way.

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        • You’re really reaching and what you are saying is SO disrespectful to women and to men of color. I am glad you don’t live in the US, you’re too retrograde to be helpful.

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  3. Okay, but it should still be recommended reading for adults with mature minds and/or who are analytical in nature as this novel, if nothing else, comprises an accurate portrayal of the social/political climate of a certain region of American society during the 50s and early 60s.

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  4. “this novel, if nothing else, comprises an accurate portrayal of the social/political climate of a certain region of American society during the 50s and early 60s.”

    That is exactly what is intolerable to the neoliberal mindset, the past must continually be revised to reflect the exquisite morality of the modern consumer. The real past is defective and must be exchanged for a more fashionable model.

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    • Shakti on said:

      I know neoliberalism is everyone’s new favorite paradigm but I think the novel got dropped for the simple reason that in
      2017 Mississippi the school district doesn’t think the teachers can handle a classroom discussion revolving around a book with a racial slur. They think it’ll leak out into fights outside the classroom on school grounds (or online.)

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      • Well in this case it’s more a case of raging collective infantilism that people can’t discuss words in a meta sense…

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      • “the school district doesn’t think the teachers can handle a classroom discussion revolving around a book with a racial slur. They think it’ll leak out into fights outside the classroom on school grounds (or online.)”

        • That’s exactly what I’m saying, thank you. I’m honestly saying I don’t know how to teach it either and I don’t see why it’s worth the effort since it’s not a valuable work of art.

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  5. I read it recreationally in junior high or high school. I enjoyed it and learned from it and it helps me now, as I interact with people having this exact mindset every day. However, I think it was more important as a book then than it is now, and I note that this was before other things became available to read. It’s from a kid’s p.o.v. and it is relatively short and easy to read, which is why I think it stays in curricula. I wouldn’t require it, but I’d certainly allow it to be taught.

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  6. Demotrash on said:

    We read this and Huckleberry Finn in high school and junior high and it wasn’t a big deal at all. I remember we discussed some of the controversy surrounding Huck Finn, but there was no controversy in the classroom, nor were there idiots using it as an excuse to use racial slurs. It was honors classes, which were more well behaved students. I think all students read TKAM though (maybe not Huck Finn.)

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  7. Demotrash on said:

    By the way, if a white supremacist was speaking at a university, what do you think would be the proper response? Peaceful protest? Completely ignoring the person?

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    • Good point. Freedom of speech for the white supremacist, and people who protest are rude and undemocratic, but pull TKAM because its criticism of racism is too mild and it uses a word that would have been used at the time.

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      • A college campus and a high school are very very different spaces. The age difference is crucial, and the fact that school kids don’t get a choice what to attend while college students do. As I said, it would seem deranged to me if anybody removed Harper Lee from a college curriculum for any other reason that the book’s primitive language and lack of artistic value.

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        • I wouldn’t teach it in college. Graduate school perhaps, as a historical document, but as reading for general discussion it is a lot more appropriate for grades 7-12, I would say, partly for simplicity of language and length; in college I would teach it in an ESL class (although I know it’s used in ESL classes at the high school level abroad).

          High schools do actually have options, and there’s flexibility on reading lists, etc. I wouldn’t fear this book.

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    • “By the way, if a white supremacist was speaking at a university, what do you think would be the proper response? Peaceful protest? Completely ignoring the person?”

      • I wouldn’t go. Especially since “white supremacist” is a label attached so liberally today that it has been washed out completely.

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  8. Would you know how to teach Huckleberry Finn? I agree it’s art, but it has n-words on every page.

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    • Demotrash on said:

      In my class, we talked about the controversy surrounding that, then the teacher made it very clear to us that we could not say the n-word in class discussion. Proper preparation and clear boundaries are essential. It might also be better to do this with older teens, although we were high school freshmen and it went fine.

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      • My fear is that this will create an intolerable environment for black students. And at this age, they can’t be expected to deal with that. I know I wouldn’t be able to deal with a class reading that had anti-Semitic slurs at that age.

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        • Demotrash on said:

          Yeah, that’s why I’d be inclined to not teach that book to 14 year olds. TKAM was much milder in that regard, but Huck Finn has them on every page. There were no black students in this class so it worked out (for some mysterious reason, almost no black students were ever recommended for the honors track.)

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  9. The discussion of white supremacists reminded me of the latest news from Austria:

    // Austrians were voting on Sunday in a snap election tipped to see conservative Sebastian Kurz, 31, become the EU’s youngest leader and form an alliance with the far-right, in the bloc’s latest populist test.

    A rightward shift in the wealthy European Union member of 8.75 million people would be a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Britain’s decision to leave and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

    But all signs indicate that Austrians, fed up with a record influx of asylum-seekers, want to swap the gridlocked centrist rule for a more hardline government for the first time in a decade.

    Kurz – who as new OeVP leader forced the snap vote in May by ending the coalition with Kern – has yanked his party to the right and is expected to seek a coalition with the far-right.

    Founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, the FPOe almost won the presidency last year and topped opinion polls in the midst of Europe’s migrant crisis.

    Kurz drew young candidates from outside politics and vowed to put “Austrians first” again.

    As foreign minister, Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016, earning him praise at home.

    Pushing far-right themes, he wants to cut benefits for all foreigners, slash Austria’s red tape and keep the EU out of national affairs.

    Experts say a rightwing government could turn Austria into a tricky partner for the bloc.

    https://www.thelocal.at/20171015/austria-set-to-elect-youngest-eu-leader-in-right-wing-push

    Liked by 1 person

  10. \ I know I wouldn’t be able to deal with a class reading that had anti-Semitic slurs at that age.

    I studied Taras Bulba in the seventh grade in Ukraine. The funny thing is that I don’t remember noticing / reacting to the three letter word for a Jew at the time, but as time passed I did start thinking about it and now don’t understand how I missed it then. May be, we didn’t read those excerpts in class.

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