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A number of classic novels that have long been a staple of school curriculum have been axed from California’s Burbank County because of concerns about racism.
“Until further notice, teachers in the area will not be able to include on their curriculum Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Theodore Taylor’s The Cay and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Newsweek confirmed late last week.
Four parents, three of them reportedly black, complained that the novels posed “potential harm” to the Burbank Unified School District’s 400 black students.
One of the black parents, Nadra Ostrom, reportedly claimed that the books’ portrayal of black people comes from only a white perspective.
“There’s no counter-narrative to this black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them,” she said, adding that the district’s curriculum was also giving the supposedly false impression “that racism is something in the past.”
Another black parent, Carmenita Helligar, claimed that one of her daughter’s white classmates learned the N-word from reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” and then used it against her.
“My daughter was literally traumatized. These books are problematic … you feel helpless because you can’t even protect your child from the hurt that she’s going through,” she said.
It’s not clear why she believes her daughter’s abuser could have only learned the word from the book …
— Bo Snerdley (@BoSnerdley) June 23, 2020
The complaints led the district to reportedly temporarily remove all five books from the school’s curriculum, though the books themselves still remain in the schools and can be read by students in their free time.
A final decision on the books’ fate is slated for sometime later this month.
In the meantime, a “diverse” set of critics have emerged to fight back against this perceived censorship and “book-burning.”
PEN America, a non-profit that defends free expression, launched a petition that argues that “banning books is not the answer.”
“Each of the books in question deal with difficult subject matter from our country’s complicated and painful history, including systemic racism,” the petition reads.
“Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.”
NEW: PEN America calls upon the Burbank Unified School district to lift the temporary ban on several books dealing with the subject of race in America and allow these books to be taught in Burbank classrooms. Sign our petition today: https://t.co/RQKsZynnu6.
— PEN America (@PENamerica) October 14, 2020
The National Coalition Against Censorship meanwhile penned a lengthy letter, strongly urging the school board “to retain the books.”
“At a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are in the streets protesting
police brutality and systemic racism, it is more important than ever for educators to
teach books that help their students understand the role that race has played in
American history and how it continues to shape our society,” the group wrote.
“The parents of students who object to these books have a right to request alternate assignments. But the Burbank schools have an obligation to help the rest of its students understand why the books are so painful and their responsibility for confronting racism. To do so, they must provide teachers with the resources and support they need to teach these books successfully.”
View the letter below:
Students have also spoken out against the ban.
“Sungjoo Yoon, 15, a sophomore at Burbank High School … launched an online petition on Change.org to stop what he called a ‘ban on antiracist books,” according to Newsweek.
“In a time where racism has become more transparent than ever, we need to continue to educate students as to the roots of it; to create anti-racist students,” he reportedly wrote.
“These literatures, of which have been declared ‘Books that Shaped America’ by the Library of Congress, won Newbury Medals, and are some of the most influential pieces, cannot disappear.”
Another student, Chloe Bauer, spoke up against the ban during a virtual Sept. 17th school board meeting.
She described how reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry” had helped her recognize America’s “bloody and gruesome” past and understand how “disgusting” racial slurs happen to be.
“This is an incredibly important lesson to learn at age 13, when seventh-graders are being exposed to music, TV, films and pop culture with conflicting messages about using offensive language, specifically the N-word,” she said.
Yet Helligar, one of the black parents who’d complained, was unimpressed by this argument and subsequently accused the teen of being “privileged.”
“They get to read about racism whereas my children have to experience it. That is the privilege that they get to walk around in,” she reportedly said.
Dawn Parker, a black parent who didn’t complain, disagreed.
“I think our kids now don’t know how the [N-word] came about, how it was used, the history of it. They hear it in rap music and they think it’s OK to say, and it’s not. They need to know why and where it came from. They need to learn it in a ‘safe environment,’” she reportedly said.