Issue 59, Fall 1995

After Martin Luther King Day this year, my son recounted what he had learned during his kindergarten class’ commemorative activities: Dr. King worked to make America a fairer country for everyone; he did not believe in fighting; he was killed when he was still young. Listening to my 5-year-old’s account, it was hard to tell if the teacher had mentioned race at all.

I do not envy grade-school teachers their responsibility. They have to know what to say to young children about race when we grownups still don’t know how to talk about race among ourselves.

I recalled this recently when I read that the New Haven schools superintendent had responded to parents’ complaints about Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by pulling the book from an eighth-grade reading list. The parents’ complaints focused on the use of the word nigger, which appears scores of times in the book.

Only a few weeks before, The Washington Post reported that Huckleberry Finn was the center of a controversy at the National Cathedral School, an exclusive private school in Washington, D.C. In that case, the book was moved from the required tenth-grade curriculum to part of an elective twelfth-grade curriculum. In both cases, school administrators denied that the book had been banned.

Few educators would actually admit to banning a book. Banning a book implies that reading can be dangerous, and that is not a lesson educators wish to convey to children. When the book at issue is a complex novel like Huckleberry Finn, the banning is an admission that the school cannot figure out how to teach it.

Surely no one involved in the recent incidents believed that reading Huckleberry Finn was inevitably harmful to children, or that the use of racial epithets would automatically render any book unsuitable for children.

The problem seemed to be that these particular schools could not create a context to make the book educationally meaningful. In New Haven, apparently, the angry parents did not trust the school to try.

As in most book-banning controversies, the book was a lightning rod for much deeper and more serious complaints.

It is not hard to imagine why African-American parents would feel that their children’s classroom should be a haven from dispiriting racial epithets. But they have a right to expect far more than that from a school. They have the right to answers from teachers.

They have the right to understand a teacher’s educational justification for assigning particular books or classroom exercises. They have the right to expect that their children will be treated sensitively and respectfully, and that although children’s beliefs and values occasionally may be challenged, their individual dignity and self-worth will not.

A school’s job is not to protect children from bad ideas, but to provide the intellectual armor to resist them. After all, in the world outside the classroom, children are bombarded with bad ideas. The major messengers are popular culture, the mass media and advertisers, which deliver pervasive and powerful messages and images trivializing sex and glorifying violence, consumerism and instant gratification. No matter what their beliefs, parents can agree that their values are under siege.

To children, who are struggling to learn who they are and what kind of adults they will be, those messages seem authoritative. It is hard to imagine another time in history when parents faced such a complex and contradictory task: to teach their children to reject some authoritative claims without rejecting authority altogether.

The idea that good parents must protect their children from the messages of their own culture seems unique to our age, but it is not. African-Americans have had to face and overcome that problem for generations. They have needed to instill in their children pride in themselves and their color, while knowing they will face racial hatred, humiliating experiences and, more recently, relentlessly negative images of themselves in the media, popular entertainment and on the news.

We all face a bewildering future. Marriage and the family are in decline. Jobs are disappearing and the meaning of work is changing. Assumptions about who Americans are as people are being challenged. All Americans could benefit from understanding African-American history, and learning where, and how, African-Americans have found the pride and strength to raise children to productive adulthood. Despite powerful myths to the contrary, the majority of African-American families have always done so and continue to do so.

Free expression and the free exchange of ideas are essential to teaching children the truth about themselves and their past. No group’s history has been censored and distorted as thoroughly as that of African-Americans.

When, during a November 1994 press conference on welfare reform, the new speaker of the U.S. House remarked that it was time to get back to the American work ethic that had succeeded for 300 years, it was amazing that he could so cavalierly erase African slavery from American history.