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Free Expression Articles

Reading Racism: Don’t Let Books Become Victims of Our Discourse on Race Published on The Root

At a time when racist actions fill our newsfeeds and send us into a low-grade depression, the last thing we want to see is the n-word in our children’s schoolbooks. So the recent decision of a Virginia mother to ask that state’s Accomack County to remove Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from the local schools was understandable. It just wasn’t right.

But I get it. I was a young person for whom the n-word and others equally damaging were the flora and fauna of my environment. So when my kids were little, I, too, tried to keep certain words from crossing my lips. I switched off certain songs when they played on the radio, and monitored the movies that came into my home. But then I decided to write a historical novel about a girl held in slavery, and guess what? The words that the master used to address the young female protagonist could not be pretty. What would he call her? You can imagine.

Our kids need our protection but also our honesty. So books that describe a racist society as a racist society are not bad. They are necessary. If a character in a book uses the n-word, we can explain this to our child in the same way we teach that God is invisible, death is inevitable and it is folly to make idols out of celebrities. That’s the reality of parenting, and it is our duty.

We also need to point our children in the direction of books that will support their self-concepts. We Need Diverse Books is one resource. So are the Brown Bookshelf and anything published by Lee and Low and Just Us Books.

But it’s important to take a hard line on the removal of books from classrooms and shelves. Not only does that express our fear of ideas, but the crazy thing about censorship is that everyone wants the other person to shut up. So when we take books that we don’t like from the shelves, we can’t complain when others remove those that reflect our views. What happens if books about civil rights, early freedom fighters and slavery, for example, begin to disappear? You can bet that in this conservative era, threats to books like that will be forthcoming.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were immediately taken from the shelves because the rule in Accomack County is that a challenged book must disappear until there is a review. But then there was an outcry in support of the First Amendment, with advocates pointing out the books’ positive values of teaching history and racism for generations. The books were quickly reviewed and put back.

I was one of about a dozen black youths in a school of 900 whites in the 1960s. Books by authors of all races buffered me. They were especially helpful if they were set in another time. From The Three Musketeers to Oliver Twist to Black Boy, books gave me the tools to view injustice from a safe distance. Literature from the past does the same thing now. Kids can read about struggles in other eras and contextualize their daily outrage. Books can show them that the human condition is often tumultuous and unpredictable.

Literature also offers tools to see the gray areas of ethics, so necessary at this point in our history. Classic books with well-drawn characters may let our kids step back from the Machiavellian rhetoric in our environment to a more thoughtful place where they can understand the differences between well-meaning people and just plain mean ones.

In our electronically saturated society, young people read headlines much more than a whole story, and they frequently hear outcries without any historical background. They need books that show them the kinds of societies in which racism flourished in as much complexity and reality as an author can muster.

Good books don’t inflict the wounds; they provide the balms. Just consider the words, “Once upon a time … ” It is the beginning of every fairy tale. There are bad guys and good guys. A child identifies with the hero, the good person.

And we, parents and teachers, reinforce that. We tell our children that they, too, have courage and resilience inside themselves, just like the main character. They will rise above their difficulties and surroundings, we predict. And if we live without fear of words, ideas or racism itself, our children will believe us. Then we will have our happy ending. Our children will be able to recognize the difference between right and wrong. And they will grow into the heroes of their families and communities and our nation.  Read More 

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Books Like These Are Meant to be Troubling Published on website

This is an era of toxic rhetoric. But we cannot shy away from words. For that reason, the decision of a Accomack County, Virginia, to remove To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because of a parent complaint is more than troubling. It doesn’t even get to troubling because it is a knee-jerk reaction to racist language in an attempt to kick it out of the minds of young readers like a computer program that blocks harmful content but won’t allow a kid to research a science project.

But let’s not be afraid. The difference between humans and computers is considerable. Technology tries to replicate thinking. People actually do it, and literature is one of the building blocks of this process. Literature offers moral values, presents historical time frames, and provides context to promote civil discussions among classmates under the guidance of their teachers. That way students won’t grow up to be trolls and name-callers without knowing the weight of their words

The well-meaning parent who sought removal of these books was concerned about the stress of racist language on her child as well she should be. She might live in a culture where this language is commonplace and approved. But she shouldn’t stop there. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird let us all know that some people use racist words casually, act on them righteously, and even join in communities to persecute others because of the racist beliefs that these words connote. The popularity of these books should let her know that the rest of the world knows this is wrong.

Books like these are meant to be troubling because that is a type of deep, personal thinking about a word, an issue, or a social more. The two classics that are being removed have been challenging injustice in our society for generations.

I hope our children will be troubled by racist words, bad ideas, and society’s injustice. And I hope they will read about them before they experience them, so that they will have a good retort. May literature continue to point out society’s failures. And may we not become the automatons of parenting and teaching. We can explain to our kids what these words meant back in the day, and also what they mean right now. Read More 

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Birds Nests and Books PEN American Center blog


PEN joined a coalition of advocacy groups, led by Free Press, on Monday to advocate for the Open Net and preserve net neutrality. Author Fatima Shaik, a member of PEN's Children's and Young Adult Committee, participated in the rally and gave this fiery speech below.

Writers use the internet like birds build nests. We search all over for strong material to construct literature that will support the next generation.

We also communicate over the airwaves to readers. You have all heard the excitement once a few of us start chirping.

Writers communicate with readers now more than ever because of the internet, and we need the FCC to maintain these relationships. For children’s literacy, for adult intellectual engagement, and for democracy—we don't want our ideas and values controlled by commercial interests.

I am particularly concerned with children as a member of the Children’s and Young Adult Committee of PEN. We have seen children’s excitement about learning grow when they have personal contact with the authors of their books. Now, because of the internet, children communicate freely in group chats to authors, in video school visits, on authors’ websites and even from home. We have the technology and it’s affordable. We ask the FCC to not allow a distinction between rich children and poor children for information.

Adult readers, as well, are intellectually engaged now over the internet. They are learning about their health and finances, having their favorite authors visit their book clubs via the internet, and realizing the depth of their rights and responsibilities through social media. We see one another's actions raw and unfiltered. We clarify our values. We speak out. That’s the definition of democracy.
Writers believed John Milton when he wrote, in essence, that people who have all the information will make good and rational decisions.

Literacy is the great equalizer. In the past, literature brought together people of all classes and countries of origin into a national flock. Now we need media literacy. We read books over the internet. We search libraries across the world. We carry electronic readers with millions of ideas. We come together because of our values. One that we still hold is equality.

But people cannot be media literate without enough access. And they cannot be equal without equal access—what we call net neutrality. So we need the FCC to protect net neutrality.

The airwaves are pathways to our nests. Writers and readers need to nest, rest and think. We ask the FCC to strongly regulate commercial interests for the good of all of us. Read More 
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