Schools in Accomack County, Virginia have removed Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from classrooms and libraries because of racist language. Superintendent Warren Holland confirmed the decision after a parent filed an official complaint because her son, who is biracial, read Huck Finn for class and claimed that he “couldn’t get past a certain page in the novel in which the N-word appeared multiple times.”
I know how he feels. This young man understands literature, at least for now.
His mother does not understand literature; the acquiescence of the Accomack County school board demonstrates that they do not; and, what’s more, I am terrified that public education intrinsically misunderstands the purpose and power of literary studies.
These novels are masterpieces, which is reason enough to read them, but there is something more fundamental at stake in the school board’s capitulation to an offended parent: the failure of American educators to compel students to grapple with suffering and compassion through stories. “There is other literature that they can use,” read the mother’s official complaint. It is distressing that the school board neglected to communicate that literature has never been written to be “used” in a classroom, but to speak into our humanity.
In Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura tells of two Japanese boys who were condemned to death for their Christian faith and forced to march over 200 miles to their own execution. When they arrived, the older boy said to his tormentors, “Show me my cross,” and they crucified him. When I read that I wept, for I have never known such suffering except in stories, and my soul is too weak to ask for a cross. It must be forced upon me. This is the purpose of stories that are hard to read, like To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. Reading literature requires us to take up the cross of human suffering, as Christ did, for the life of the world.
Those who have not endured injustice need stories of oppression to shape our souls to repentance and radical change
Literature is a collection of great stories beautifully told. These stories contain what G.K. Chesterton called “the really human things”: war, reconciliation, death, rebirth, grief, redemption, forgiveness, compassion. These “human things” are universal. When we read, we engage narratives with beloved characters, who invite us to live beyond ourselves. This is painful. It means we hear the N-word in all its ugliness through the ears of a child in the crucible of Jim Crow south witnessing the conviction of an innocent man simply because he is black. We feel the injustice of racism through To Kill A Mockingbird. We read about it in newspapers, but that does not engage our moral imaginations like literature. If we want people to feel what we feel, we must give them our stories. Without stories, our inner worlds remain small. Stories develop compassion. They awaken our latent capacity for redemptive action. If we care about overcoming racism, we should run as fast as we can toward, not away from, Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. These books were written to confront injustice, but to do that the authors had to name it. We suffer with the stories, we hang on their crosses, and that is how repentance converts us to action.
To reject these stories because they trigger pain is a superficial response, and the wounds of injustice are too deep for that. Those who have not endured injustice need stories of oppression to shape our souls to repentance and radical change. That is why literature exists. That is why it matters, and that is why we should fight to keep it in schools. We need Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird to offend and disrupt us, because these stories name misery and move us to mend it.
Many in our culture believe that we can eradicate misfortune through political reform, but those who study the humanities know that these efforts do not succeed. This is a terrible truth, and we are afraid of it, so we try to forget. We remove what forces us to remember. “Let us forget that we ever used the N-word, and expunge the evidence.” This is called censorship, and its proponents, from Plato to protective mothers to the book burners of communist Europe, have claimed moral superiority to justify erasing our history. But remembering the suffering of the world from a posture of repentance is our only hope of overcoming it, and that is one purpose of literature. Literature remembers suffering. It safeguards compassion. It spurs action. The preservation of literature is crucial to remaining a free and humane society. Censorship is the action of oppression, not its solution, and we must stand against it, which means bearing the cross of human suffering.
Is there a virtuous purpose for censorship? Certainly. We should censor that which promotes or contributes to evil. But we should not censor art that promotes goodness, even when it names evil, for that in itself is true and good. Should the censorship of evil come from the state? That is debatable, but that is not at stake here.
The boundaries around this can be muddy, and require common sense. Should a ten-year-old read Crime and Punishment because naming evil is good? No. It is not always necessary to trouble our souls in order to develop virtue. Individual discernment is different from state censorship. These are different questions than whether students should be kept from books universally acknowledged as profoundly great because we are unwilling to experience offense in the advancement of human goodness. Read these books, and suffer with the characters, so that we can be dazzled by the kingdom of God.
Christ said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” This means weeping with those who weep, not erasing weeping from our cultural memory. When we are willing to engage suffering through the great stories of literature, we become invested in redemption, and we participate in the life of the world.