Rethinking Race in the Classroom

The day my ninth-grade english teacher, Mr. Buzzell, assigned my class "To Kill a Mockingbird" still sticks in my mind, mainly because I remember being the only one in the room excited to tackle the Harper Lee classic. Unlike most of my classmates, I'd already read the book about a white lawyer representing a black man accused of rape during the Great Depression. I'd also seen the movie twice (my mother loved Gregory Peck). Mr. Buzzell was a British-born white teacher attempting to explain the complexities of racism and injustice at a mixed-race school in Augusta, Ga., so the class discussions were pretty lively.

Maybe it was because we were in the Deep South that most of my classmates weren't much offended by Tom Robinson, the black field hand accused of raping a white woman. His slurred speech, substandard English and deference to the white people around him weren't exactly foreign to many of us who knew elders who'd employed some of those same tactics in an effort to simply survive.

But that was more than 20 years ago, in the '80s, when rap was just beginning on the streets of New York, Ronald Reagan was president and African-Americans were struggling to land significant positions within government. It is indeed a very different world today, a place where hip-hop dominates popular culture around the world and the president of the United States just happens to be an African-American man named Barack Obama.

In early January, just before Obama's inauguration, John Foley, a white high-school teacher in Ridgefield, Wash., penned a guest editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that suggested it was time to stop teaching books that readily use the "N word." Stories that portray African-Americans as inarticulate and unintelligent souls in need of white America often offended both his black and white students. Foley identified "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "To Kill a Mockingbird'' and "Of Mice and Men'' as three books that needed to be reconsidered immediately.

That editorial set off a fierce debate on blogs, radio shows and in classrooms across the country. Now that there's a black man in the White House, what message does it send our kids to read aloud a classic that uses the N word more than 200 times? While these arguments are hardly new, they're all the more important now given our rapidly changing attitudes on race, Foley argues. "I think at the time when we have this very articulate, smart and intelligent black man running the country, we don't need to reinforce the same negative stereotypes to young minds,'' says Foley, 48, who's received hundreds of angry letters from people across the country. "I'm very tired of having to explain to black parents and white kids as to why these books say the 'N word' again and again or having to watch my black students totally shut down as they read about black characters so far removed from the people they know.''

Foley's argument may sound simplistic and wrongheaded. But it does raise deeper questions about our comfort level around race, especially now. Though Obama himself called for more open dialogue during his campaign, most of us still struggle to speak frankly on the subject. Throw in not just the N word, but also, in the case of "Huck Finn," a portrayal of a childlike black man who seems to lack self-respect and dignity, and it's easier to see why it might make some—especially sensitive white teachers—squirm with discomfort or even embarrassment right now.

The debate hasn't been limited to literature either: in the past few weeks alone, National Public Radio, many African-American blogs and talk-show host Michael Baisden all led discussions questioning whether we still need Black History Month. "I think there is a certain sector of the country that now feels racism is over, let's move on,'' says Todd Boyd, who teaches race and popular culture at the University of Southern California.

In some sense, I suppose having those conversations is a kind of progress. After all, we don't have White History Month—it's just part of what kids learn all the time. But I could have never imagined this moment as a fifth-grade student whose class assignments included writing letters to our local officials demanding that Martin Luther King's birthday be made into a national holiday. Or even as a high-school student just happening upon "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" at a friend's house and wondering why I had to introduce myself to such a complex, controversial and fascinating figure.

And as a lover of books, I personally can't imagine missing the opportunity to savor rich characters like "Mockingbird's" Boo Radley or Atticus Finch, particularly since Finch ultimately became a hero on the issue of race. Besides offering Mark Twain's ironic take on slavery—Huck feels he is immoral for not turning in the escaped Jim—"Huck Finn" was a foundational novel for much of modern American literature, "Mockingbird" included. "We don't give children the credit they deserve for being as smart as they are,'' says author Terry McMillan. "Yes, it is a new day, but a classic book is forever—no matter the day and no matter what's changed.'' Fiction transports the reader back into the space and time of a story, McMillan says, helping to put real feelings behind real events. "The characters in those books make whatever the issue is all the more tangible for the reader," McMillan says. "They do what a PBS documentary can't—whether it's talking about Abraham Lincoln or slavery.''

Boyd, the USC professor, says he still gets a chill up and down his spine when he shows the explicitly racist film "The Birth of a Nation,'' to his students. The 1915 movie that endorses the Ku Klux Klan is widely considered a movie masterpiece, particularly for its day. "I personally hate that film and all that it represents, but I can't deny my students a chance to see it,'' says Boyd. "It's a part of history that can't be ignored and shouldn't be.''

Of course, much depends on how this kind of material is presented and what context it's given. "I have no problem teaching 'Huck Finn' and explaining that this was a particular period of time in America," says Rita James, an African-American 10th-grade English teacher in Dayton, Ohio. "I think some of my white counterparts have a problem discussing this type of subject matter because they have no point of context for teaching without trying to defend it. I don't defend it. It is what it is and was what it was.''

There's also a case to be made that, in the age of Obama, it is more important than ever to study works like "Huck Finn." "These stories let kids know just how amazing it is that this man is president right now,'' says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University.

But as adamant as some African-American teachers and professors are about keeping the books in the classroom, some black parents feel very differently. Thirty-four-year-old LaTice Atkins of Orlando says she knows quite enough about the days of "colored only'' and sitting at the back of the bus, and has no desire for her sons, ages 4 and 6, to be reminded of that time. "I'm not really interested in my sons learning that black men were being called 'n––––r' 100 years ago because they're likely to get called it now,'' says Atkins.

As much as I loved to devour any book as a kid, I too was no fan of "Huck Finn" and tuned out the week it was taught by my beloved teacher Mr. Buzzell. (I did the same thing in calculus, but somehow I doubt that subject is in jeopardy of not being taught.) In the end, parents, teachers and mentors are all responsible for arming students with the right tools for the future. And when our children end up learning only half the story, no one wins.