Issue 70, Summer 1998

We usually reserve this space to reprint an article of special interest that has appeared elsewhere. This time, we’re printing a shortened version of a letter to us because the issue raised by eighth-grade English teacher Gina Corsun, of Edison, New Jersey, is so compelling. Corsun had selected for teaching, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, for its relevance to the science and social studies curriculum. In preparation, she read articles on science fiction, critical essays of Bradbury’s work, and teaching materials from the Center for Learning for use with the novel. Excerpts from her letter follow:

Of particular concern to me was a chapter entitled Way Up In The Middle Of The Air about a racist man, Samuel Teece, and his treatment of African-Americans who want to leave Earth and form a new society on Mars. Because of its use of the word “nigger,” I briefly considered skipping the chapter, but I felt that was a cowardly thing to do. …Knowing my students…I knew that my skipping the chapter would prompt many (if not most) to read it to find out why I omitted it. After talking…with colleagues, I decided …to do a guided reading of the chapter. I am also aware that students will be reading books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and others which use “nigger” in high school.

As soon as we started the novel, we were engaged in discussions of social criticism — environmental issues, gender issues, colonization issues, etc. For the controversial chapter, I created a worksheet which listed several quotes from the chapter. The students had to respond to the questions: What is your reaction to this speaker? Who is he? (Describe him.) Do you like him? Why or why not? What might he say or do next?

…I told my students that this was a controversial chapter. I told them that we would meet a character who would use the word “nigger” several times, as well as curses. We then discussed the author’s purpose in creating this character. The students correctly concluded that the reader was supposed to hate Teece, and that Bradbury was trying to illustrate the evils of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. At that time, the students were working on the Civil Rights Movement in social studies. We discussed life in America for African-Americans at that time. The students also brought up examples of racism and discrimination from today… I felt that I had established a safe environment in my classroom and that my students were ready for this material. I read the chapter aloud to the class, stopping frequently for discussion. We also read the sequel to this story, The Other Foot, in The Illustrated Man in which the African-Americans who have successfully settled on Mars have to decide, 20 years later, whether or not to take revenge on the white astronauts who seek refuge after a devastating war on Earth.

The mother of one of my African-American students objected to my reading the chapter aloud and especially to my saying “nigger” instead of saying “the n-word” or skipping the word entirely. She came in for a meeting with her daughter’s guidance counselor and me. I explained my approach and my reasoning with her, but she would not buy it. Let me also note that I approached the chapter the same way in two other classes and no one else had a problem with it. I discussed it with the father of one of my African-American students, and he had no problem… Another teacher was teaching the book in two of her classes and no one had a problem.

The mother went to the principal, my department head, and the assistant superintendent of curriculum. All supported my use of the book and teaching methods. She was advised that she could file a complaint against the book. Instead, she went to the Star Ledger. An English instructor specializing in science fiction at Rutgers was quoted, as was Ray Bradbury and the American Library Association. The mother eventually filed the necessary papers. After much discussion in which using an expurgated version, dropping the book altogether, or shipping it to the high school was debated, the decision was made to move the book to the tenth grade (where Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is also taught).

As you no doubt can imagine, this has been an extremely upsetting and distressing episode. My district wanted this issue to go away, and I knew that although they supported what I did, they would not fight for the book. I was afraid that they would go the expurgated route (I informed my department head that I would not teach that version). I was also worried that the book would sit on the shelf in the high school book room and never see the light of day again (my department head has assured me that she “will encourage” the teachers to use it and she has asked for copies of my materials). But what disturbs me even more is the fact that the far-reaching repercussions of this incident are not being addressed. Teachers in the seventh grade are now reluctant to recommend, much less teach, Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (both Board approved books). Copies of Art Spiegleman’s Maus II were removed from a Scholastic book fair and students were only permitted to purchase it after they returned a letter signed by their parents acknowledging the “mature content” of this book (n.b.: The Holocaust is a state mandated unit of study here)…