September 21-27, 2014, marks Banned Books Week. This year, I’ve decided to take a different approach to talking about banned books with my students than I usually do. Because of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, at the start of the school year, my students have been incredibly eager to talk about race in the United States. They not only want to know how our nation is handling race issues like the clash between the mostly white police force and predominantly black citizens in Ferguson, but they also want to know how our country got to where we are today.
Their desire led me to discuss in class three challenged or banned books that explicitly address racial themes and provide insight into the racial tensions of their depicted time periods; in some cases, the banning of the book was related to its historically accurate depictions of race and racism.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I assign Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird every chance I get. The story features Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. The majority of the story centers around the court case her father, Atticus, is involved in. A lawyer, Atticus is called upon to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping and beating a poor white woman. While there is not a shred of evidence that Robinson committed the crime (and plenty that points to who did), the town generally accepts that Robinson committed the crime simply because he is black and the victim is white. As the case unfolds, readers see—through young Scout’s eyes—an accurate picture of race-based injustice in the South in the 1930s.
Even though the depictions of racism are historically accurate, the book has been banned and challenged over and over because of them. In the 1980s and again from 2003 to 2009 the book was challenged repeatedly for its use of the n-word and its descriptions of institutionalized racism.*
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain explores contemporary (1884) moral and social justice issues through the boyhood escapades of Huck Finn and his friend, Tom Sawyer. When Huck’s wayward father comes demanding money he and Tom stole, Huck ends up escaping to Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River where he meets Jim, a runaway slave. Despite questioning the morality of helping a runaway, Huck eventually decides to help Jim. What follows is both a hair-raising adventure and a commentary on the realities of slavery.
Considering the book was first published in 1884, not long after the Civil War, it was deemed ahead of its time in its open criticism of slavery in the United States. However, the book continues to be banned in schools and libraries across the country specifically because of its use of the n-word.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Upon its publication in 1952, Invisible Man became an instant classic. The book follows an unnamed narrator through his childhood and college years as a black person in the South and on to Harlem, which is strikingly less racially tolerant than we might expect from the lessons in our history books. The novel was instantly praised for its accurate portrayal of racial injustice in the 1950s. The narrator is purposely unnamed to draw attention to his invisibility—an invisibility forced upon him simply because he is a black man that white people refuse to truly see. Ellison’s novel has been critically admired for decades, in part for its graphic depictions of what it meant to be black during a time of great civil unrest in this country.
Unfortunately, the book has also been banned and challenged for decades. Most recently, in 2013, the book was banned in Randolph County, North Carolina, because, as the school board said, it had no “literary value.” This is a ridiculous claim to make about a novel that is considered one of the best of all time and that expertly addresses complex questions of identity, diversity, justice and action against injustice.
Each of these books addresses complex race-related questions—questions our students still grapple with in today’s increasingly diverse world—and the classroom is the perfect place to start talking about them.** Invisible Man provides many opportunities to explore issues of identity. For instance, “What does it feel like when society denies who we are?” To Kill A Mockingbird is ripe for justice-based questions like “How do bias and prejudice undermine equal rights?” And Huckleberry Finn is an ideal text for discussing the need for action in the face of injustice: “Do we have the same responsibility to act on behalf of those outside of our identity group as we do for members of our own identity groups?”
These books are only three of the great classics that show historically accurate portrayals of racism in this country. If you’re looking for a way to discuss racism with your students, consider adding one of these books to your curriculum—and be sure to discuss why it is has been historically challenged so frequently. You are guaranteed to have a great discussion with your students if you do.
Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.
*While Teaching Tolerance does not support banning books or teaching editions that remove controversial content altogether, we do support teachers making informed decisions about how and when to teach difficult or potentially upsetting content. See our piece "Straight Talk About the N-Word" for more on how to facilitate conversations when teaching books like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn.
**The essential questions in this blog were adapted from Teaching Tolerance’s anti-bias curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America. You can find dozens of texts on the topic of race and ethnicity in Perspectives' Central Text Anthology.
- N-Word Or No N-Word? That is the Question
- Teaching Huck Finn Without Regret
- Books Under Fire
- Celebrate Reading Freedom with a Banned Book
- The Critical Legacy of Harper Lee
- Journaling as a Social Justice Learning Tool
- The N-Word: Connected Through Historical Disconnect?
- We Don’t See Racism?
- Bridging the Cultural Gaps in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
- Straight Talk about the N-Word