A call to purge our schools of “harmful” literary classics

From that citadel of free speech: Qatar.

MCM

It’s time to diversify and decolonise our schools’ reading lists

We don’t need to teach books that capitalise on inaccurate stereotypes and vulgar tropes about marginalised communities.

by Anjali Enjeti

Recently, a Duluth school district in Minnesota decided to drop Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its required reading list because of the books’ use of the n-word (The books will remain on a list that students have the option of reading). While this is an important step in the right direction, it barely scratches the surface of a more deeply troubling issue. Many white-authored classics are racist and damaging to students of colour, and their usage of racial slurs is merely the tip of the iceberg for why texts such as these should be left off of literature syllabi.

Both “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” incorporate the common white-saviour/”magical negro or native” trope whereby indigenous, brown and black characters exist as mere devices to help white characters attain moral enlightenment. Jim in “Huck Finn” and Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” like other indigenous, black and brown characters in the predominantly white-authored literary canon, are flat and grossly stereotypical. They lack their own agency, autonomy and humanity, and exist in deplorable conditions only to be pitied by more vividly drawn white characters, victims whose victimhood is the crux of the frequently employed white saviour plot. The more helpless these characters are, the greater, more courageous, more impressive the white saviour’s rescue seems.

Some critics argue that the Duluth school district’s decision was a mistake because “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” teach students about racism. This is only the case, of course, if by “students” we mean white students. Indigenous, brown and black students don’t learn anything about racism written from the oppressor’s point of view, and the portrayal of such flagrant racism hardly reflects the reality of what many indigenous and students of colour endure in their daily lives.

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