Book Selection is Not a Politician’s Job

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Legislation

By: Kate Lechtenberg

 New Jersey General Assembly
New Jersey General Assembly

Two state lawmakers in New Jersey are “encouraging school districts to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the school curriculum” because of the book’s repeated use of the n-word and its roots in racist perspectives and history. Politico published the drafted non-binding concurrent resolution, and local press coverage reiterates that the resolution still leaves decisions about book selection up to each individual school district.

As I read the draft resolution, I was struck by the formality of the legislative genre, and my own response began forming as a personal resolution about how I view the relationship between schools, literature, and government. Below, I adopt the style of the proposed resolution as I articulate my own professional and personal beliefs about whether we should teach Huck Finn or other canonical texts that center white perspectives on the topic of race.

A Personal Resolution on Canonical Texts Rooted in Racist History and Language

Whereas, I am an educator and librarian committed to the inclusive book selection practices that Assembly members Holley and Reynolds-Jackson claim to advocate; and

Whereas, As a white woman, I recognize that my perspective is informed by a privileged racial identity that does not feel the pain of marginalization that Assembly members Holley and Reynolds-Jackson, both African Americans, may have experienced and currently seek to prevent; and

Whereas, I agree, both as a literacy professional and as a mother of children of color, that asking students to read books that include racial slurs—even in those texts that have been declared to have literary, cultural, and historical value—is deeply complex and problematic; and

Huck Finn book cover Whereas, Literacy educators and scholars have debated the merits of including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other canonical works that center white perspectives and racist language, notably in a 2016 special issue of NCTE’s English Journal that includes four essays by educators debating the question; and

Whereas, I believe that it is essential to teach white-centric texts with racist slurs like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, first, within a curriculum that is rich in literature by and about people of color and marginalized groups, and second, with a critical, antiracist lens that actively challenges the centering of whiteness and the damage that racist literary portrayals and language inflict on people of color; and

Whereas, Assembly member Reynolds-Jackson acknowledges that instructor expertise is key for effective discussion of racial injustice, saying, “I think you have to make sure you have a strong instructor to lead that conversation and those technical skills in developing our students;” therefore, perhaps the resolution should focus instead on encouraging schools to engage in antiracist, critical pedagogy; and

Whereas, Communities that follow the example of Duluth, MN, and Montgomery County, PA, by removing Huck Finn or any other book from their required curricula, should do so in accordance with their own selection policies and with the consultation of their literacy education experts; and

Whereas, A legislator’s appropriate role in conversations about book selection and school curriculum is to secure funding and set policy, not to make recommendations about specific literary titles; and

Whereas, Making specific legislative resolutions about individual literature titles has the potential to create a slippery slope toward government censorship; and

Whereas, I believe that preventing harm of students in marginalized identity groups is best accomplished through antiracist pedagogy and complex conversations about race, facilitated by informed educators and with the support of engaged communities, none of which is included in this resolution; now, therefore

Be it resolved that

  • I encourage lawmakers to exercise their rights as citizens, parents, and community members to express their concerns about book selections to school officials within their communities and states, but not as a matter of legislation or formal resolutions.
  • Rather than using their positions as legislators to exert governmental power where local control and educational expertise are more appropriate, I encourage legislators to leave the work of book selection or rejection to the expertise of educators and librarians who are trained to consult with professional resources and community membersincluding students and familiesto make these important decisions. While every change in curriculum does not necessarily merit being called “censorship,” I believe the non-binding concurrent resolution sponsored by Assembly members Holley and Reynolds-Jackson “encourages” conditions favorable to legislative and administrative overreach, which are the building blocks of censorship.
  • Finally, I encourage schools throughout New Jersey and the United States to pursue antiracist teaching to challenge racist histories, language, and texts that continue to exist in our schools and curricula.

 


Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

4 comments

  • Your resolution presents a complex approach to this issue. I completely agree that legislators should not determine what children and young adults read. However, individual teachers and principals may not always be the best judges either, and could easily feel pressured to remove difficult classics such as Huck Finn due to community pressure. There is no easy solution here and I am not offering one. I would suggest keeping in mind that few books written before the 21st century will not present controversy. A classic such as Huck Finn has achieved its status for a reason. Reading it with sensitivity, while actively engaging students and the whole community in discussion and critical responses, would seem to be a viable option. Local control of education may seem ideal, until the local community decides to question the book which you view as progressive and enlightened.

  • I like this resolution, except for the “white guilt” clause of your preamble. “As a white woman, I recognize that my perspective is informed by a privileged racial identity …” Isn’t it time white people stopped apologizing for an oppression in which we took no part?

  • Hi Cyril, thanks for your comments. I don’t see my statement as reflective of “white guilt;” instead, my goal was to recognize that my whiteness makes relationship to this issue different than the that of the African American Assembly members who drafted the resolution. I do not experience the pain of the n-word in the same way, and I think it’s important rhetorically to recognize that my identity informs and sometimes limits my perspective on how the n-word impacts students. I don’t apologize for being white.

    In addition, while I did not take part in the oppressive acts of slavery, segregation, or other related policies like discriminatory housing policies, I do think it’s important to recognize that as a white person, my family has benefitted from and I continue to benefit from the institutional racism that limited the economic potential and human rights of people of color. I don’t choose these benefits, but they are afforded to me as part of living in a world and system that has had long-standing racial hierarchy.

    Acknowledging my white identity doesn’t absolve me from responsibility to work to challenge unjust racial hierarchies in our system, but it’s part of recognizing how being white informs my views on issues like this one. I try to be a co-conspirator for equity and racial justice, and recognizing the limits of my position is one small part of that.

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