Duluth School District Removes “Mockingbird” and “Huck Finn” from Curriculum

Mitchell Rolling

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Officials at the Duluth school district have decided to eliminate “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from their curriculum. The decision comes after supposed rising complaints about the use of racial slurs, making some students feel uncomfortable.

As Duluth News Tribune reported on Feb. 6, the books will still be available in district libraries and students may still choose to read them for class assignments. The change is that students will no longer be required, in an attempt to be considerate of all students. The local NCAAP chapter has endorsed the decision.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

Cary also noted that the decision did not come from one specific complaint but from a growing amount concerning their use of racial slurs and the depicting of slavery and segregation.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NCAAP chapter, celebrated the decision as being “20 year’s overdue” and expressed many thoughts similar to Cary. Many others voiced their criticisms, though, saying that it infringes on freedom of speech

The National Coalition Against Censorship has already sent a letter to district officials in Duluth, urging them to reverse this decision they claim will hurt intellectual debate over the “destructiveness of this language” that “should be examined and discussed” in the classroom. 

“It is there that the books’ complexities can be contextualized and their anti-racist message can be understood,” the group continued. “Rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of color.”

A teacher within the Duluth school district, Amy Ness, also voiced her concerns in an editorial published in the Duluth News Tribune. She says that this decision “erroneously sends the message that these pieces of American literature serve to promote racial disparity rather than demonstrate the injustice of it.”

The point she brings to light underlies the key question in the debate. Are we going to forget and ignore the histories of slavery and Jim Crow, and the realities of violent and physical oppression they brought, in the name of not being offensive to those who just don’t understand the literature? This could have detrimental effects on the education of America’s youth.

In response to Clay and Witherspoon’s assertion’s that other authors exist to learn the same literary techniques from, Ness asks, “Who are they?

“Twain and Lee give readers the opportunity to evaluate literature that uses language creatively to discuss issues related to responsible citizenship in our country,” Ness went on to say. “The history of our democracy includes a great number of offenses, including prejudice and cruelty to our fellow man. But our offenses also are part of our American history, a history we should not erase but rather should discuss and learn from. 

“Twain and Lee understood this,” Ness concluded. “As a society, we need to learn to do so as well.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship shared similar concerns.

The group stated, “While it is understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students, the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom.”

This is not the first time this coalition has been on the front-lines in this debate. When a Mississippi school district decided to ban “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade curriculum, this group was just as critical. In other instances, like Virginia in 2016, school districts saw the removal of these books entirely from both its curriculum and libraries.

Will the debate over educational “safe spaces” and “political correctness” lead more districts to ban books? Only time will tell. No rational person can deny that removing books from schools is a slippery slope, usually characteristic of authoritarian regimes.