White Men Can’t Write… or Rewrite, rather

Click for "Another Oldie but Goodie"

PLEASE NOTE: I participated again in Friday Flash Fiction Horror again this week, however, to maintain variety, I haven’t published it here.  You can find Another Oldie but Goodie either on my bookstore website under Free Samples (www.pauldailbooks.com) or at Vamplit Publishing.

What does the future hold?

Next Friday, I’ll be posting my review of the book (NOT THE MOVIE) No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.  If you saw the movie and liked it (if not straight-out loved it), then you have to read the book.  And if you’ve only read McCarthy’s The Road and thought it so bleak you’d never read another of his books, I hope to convince you otherwise.

But without further ado…

Big ideas come in small packages

This last year, as I sat and watched “Of Mice and Men” with my freshmen Language Arts class, I couldn’t help but think (as I had on each of the previous days when we were reading the book) of the absence of two of my students.  Well, “absent” is only correct in the very literal sense.  They were present at the beginning of each class, and I knew where they were during class, but by a choice that I couldn’t argue with, they had chosen not to be in my classroom whenever we were spending time with George, Lennie and the rest of the men (and one woman) on the ranch in the Salinas Valley, circa 1930’s.

You see, the language of the book made them uncomfortable.  This is one of the main complaints with Of Mice and Men that has landed the book in the fourth position for the American Library Association’s (ALA) Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century.

Something else we shouldn't try

By the way, according to the ALA, a “challenge” is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.”

This fact is important to remember as I develop this post.  It is not the government, but usually individuals or groups of individuals acting on their own accord.

Even after expressing to my students that these characters are mostly uneducated, working types and that their profanity reflects that fact, and even after giving a brief history lesson about the “n” word (that it was most often used then in the same context as we might use the term “black” today to describe someone of African American descent.  Yes, there were times when it was used derogatorily, but in Of Mice and Men, that only happens with Curley’s wife, and

An enigmatic character

seeing as Steinbeck had the word capitalized in her dialogue, it forms a great example of that very point.  For her, “Nigger” was Crooks’ name), I still had a handful of students who couldn’t get past the language and chose an alternate individual reading assignment (by the way, teaching it southern Utah, it was mostly the multiple instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain that bothered these students).

So how do I avoid this type of situation?  Well, I suppose the easiest way is to simply not teach the book, but for such a short story, Of Mice and Men is full of elements that English teachers love to talk about.  From setting to point of view to character/story arc, it’s all there.  And talk about an ending.  I still get choked up when I read the ending to the students.

So that’s not going to be a possibility.  At least not until I’m told so by my administration.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another book that has been challenged for similar reasons (have you figured out where I’m going with this yet?), however, instead of multiple uses/varieties of vulgar language, it is primarily the use of one word.  Again, the “n” word.

Having done some of my growing up in Georgia, I never used this word.  Not only out of fear of getting a good pounding, but also simply out of respect.  I read Huck Finn aloud to my students, and it was very difficult for me to say the word every time it came up.  But I made it through.

Alan Gribben apparently couldn’t do the same.  If you’re not familiar with Alan Gribben, he claims that he was approached by teachers who wanted to use the book in their classroom but simply couldn’t, either for personal or political reasons.  So his solution?  Remove all of the “n” words (all 219 of them) and replace them with the word “slave.”

Yup.

The word “audacity” comes to mind here for several reasons:

1- Gribben is actually a noted Mark Twain scholar at Auburn University.  So shouldn’t he know that this book is actually anti-slavery (even though it was published after the abolition of slavery)?

2- Has he not read Fahrenheit 451 (this one made it into My own Works Cited list: 10 books that have inspired me)?  Before I read Fahrenheit 451, I already knew that it was set in a time when books had been eliminated from society, but what surprised me was the reasoning.  It wasn’t the government.  It was the people.  Bradbury had predicted the birth of “uber political correctness” which I think we are somewhat mired in currently.  In Fahrenheit 451, they started by taking out any material that might be offensive to anyone until they were left with nothing at all.

Neither cool, nor hip

3- Alan Gribben is white.  Personally, while I find it a little hypocritical, I believe that black people should be welcome to use the “n” word.  And while I might argue a little bit if someone of African American descent wanted to make these changes to Huck Finn, I wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on.  But Gribben is white.  And not even like a cool, hip white guy who could’ve been black in a previous life.  Just plain white.

I had an amazing professor at the University of Montana.  Her name was Debra Magpie Earling, and she taught Fiction and Native American Studies.  It was a great class.  Debra was a member of the Flathead Indian tribe, and during the time I was taking the class there was a movement going on to remove the word “Squaw” from various landscape and other sites around the Northwest.  “Squaw” is a derogatory term referring to the female genitalia, comparable to the modern “c” word (everybody with me still?).

As an Indian (and Debra said that was the name she preferred), she found this movement to be offensive.  To her, that word was part of the past, a past which shouldn’t simply be erased because some found it offensive or because it made people uncomfortable.

Personally, I don’t think worry over making people uncomfortable was a concern that Debra Earling gave much thought to.  Did I mention how much I liked her?

Not how it happened

Along these same lines, a writer from The Economist stated that we cannot “fully appreciate why ‘nigger’ is taboo today if you don’t know how it was used back then, and you can’t fully appreciate what it was like to be a slave if you don’t know how slaves were addressed” (The Economist, 2011).

I’m not sure if I fully believe the old adage, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Seems like we tend to repeat the same old mistakes quite frequently.  If nothing else, we have seriously short term memory, especially when it comes to a shift in political power.  But perhaps it would be even worse if we just polished up everything ugly and made it look better than it actually is… or was.

I tell my students that I’m not comfortable with a lot of the language that I read aloud to them, but that it is part of history.  Maybe this is easy to say because I’m a white guy.  Maybe I don’t have any right to be chiming in on this argument at all.  But if I’m to believe that, then I certainly don’t have any right to rewrite.

What do I want from you?

What are your thoughts?  Mine were admittedly a little convoluted, but I’m trying to make my posts a little shorter (feel free to comment on this, as well).

Are we too wrapped up in political correctness when it comes to this type of thing?  Or on the other hand, if rewriting this type of material enables more school children to read and discuss the book, should we do it?  I have set up a rather one-sided argument (not the first time I’ve done this in one of my posts), but I hope at least someone out there will take an opposing viewpoint.

And don’t forget to check back next Friday for my review of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

Oh, and don’t forget to check out my Friday Flash Fiction this week.  It’s a little more gruesome but not too much (the theme is “Grotesque love in a graveyard”).

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12 responses to “White Men Can’t Write… or Rewrite, rather

  1. I’ve been waiting all week for this post, and I am not disappointed. I was raised in the New York/ New Jersey area and got caught up in the Civil Rights movement. Up until I went into the service and off to ‘Nam, I was riding the Freedom Buses to Alabama, listening to Malcolm X in New York, and constantly doing what I could to make life better for all of us humans. I am white, well mostly. I will explain later. Since my best friend, perhaps my
    only friend, was Black, we had many discussions about what he and his other friends thought about the “N” word and everything related to this. They hated the word, but when it came to literature they understood that to change words was wrong. Why? These works presented life as it was in past times and even present times. Any other words would have been a lie. It also created a sort of rallying point for change and greater understanding. That battle is still not over. I cringe when I see the number of Black people who are still treated poorly within our culture. My best friend died in my arms in “Nam, and his memory will never escape me. Nor his thoughts.

    The mostly white part? My paternal grandmother was 100% Cherokee and I am damned proud to be carrying her blood. A lot of my Indian kin-yes, many prefer to be called that- want to keep all the history intact within their minds so they can truthfully pass it on to their loved ones. Not the distorted bull-shit that passes for truth, but actual occurrences no matter how bad they were.

    Are we seeing a common thread here? Yes, most certainly. By leaving literature as is, we open eyes to injustice, regardless of your ethnic background. I will probably piss off some so-called white do-gooders who wish to change words, but get your asses out of this! Hitler burned books. this is just another form of it.

    I’m off my soap box, Paul. Great post! Thank you for asking for opinions.

    Blaze

  2. Blaze, you have an amazing insight into this topic. Don’t hesitate to hop on your soap box anytime you’re here. And I appreciate your part in this discussion both as a sympathizer (that sounds negative, but not how I intend it) and as someone who is part American Indian. I think we live in the great melting pot, but sometimes that leads to just a pot of bland stew if we forget where we came from.

    I did actually have one student this past year who objected to the use of the “n” word in Of Mice and Men, but it was like a light bulb going on for her when I pointed out how it was used differently between the ranch hands and Curley’s wife. For the former, it wasn’t an insult.

  3. Tres cool, Paul! I will not feel shy about my new soap box site. Yay!

    We certainly need to open our minds, don’t we?

    Blaze

  4. What a brave, important post. Yes, I think we’re too wrapped up in PC-ness. I think we like to think of ourselves as so evolved because our language has largely changed, while the underlying hate or penchant toward groupism remains untouched. Books like Steinbeck’s and Twain’s can shine a light on these topics precisely because they’re not camouflaged. So do posts–and teaching–like yours.

  5. I agree with Blaze. One day, the language we use today will have a totally different meaning to those who read our works fifty years from now. Does that mean we should have our books banned? Books are an educational experience and reading a book from another time is like taking a trip back in time to see how things really were. We may not be comfortable with what we see but it is the job of educators to open they eyes of those who are sheltered and let them examine the language and culture of those times for themselves. By censoring our history, we are erasing it. We are basically saying that people should close their eyes to the past and possibly be doomed to repeat it.
    Is banning a book really a sign of political correctness or is it prejudice in disguise?

    • Lacey, excellent points. I just got an email from my cousin who is a teacher in Germany, and it addresses your last point. Because of firewall issues, I have to post it for her, but it was really interesting. Thanks for your comments.

  6. I love your prejudice in disguise statement, Lacey! Great choice of words!

    Blaze

  7. This very interesting comment came from my cousin, a teacher/administrator in Germany, who wasn’t able to post because of firewall issues. Make sure you read to the part that relates to Germany.

    “If teachers edit or re-write literature then they rob their students of the opportunity to learn about and understand a piece of literature or an event in history, or worse, the students only learn a small version or a slanted version that has been taken out of context. They are not empowered to make their own informed opinions and choices.

    Another kind of discussion has been going on here in Germany since the Wall fell – West Germany has done a lot to “work through” the darker side of contemporary history, the Nazi regime. The political discussions, the cultural portrayals of the horrors and atrocities of that totalitarian regime and the Holocaust are shown in theaters and discussed on talk shows and taught in the schools.

    The East Germans on the other hand never had that kind of open discussion throughout society, Nazism and the Holocaust was often just brushed over in the schools – and the result: right wing Neo-Nazi political parties are doubly popular and have three times more members than in the West.

    Once again, you cannot ignore or pretend that Nazism did’nt or doesn’t exist and hope that it will then go away, just like you can’t pretend or ignore the “N..” word. It won’t go away. So of course the focus in recent years in East Germany has been on education within all levels of society.”

  8. Very interesting post, Paul. You make some excellent points. I seem to have a similar literary background. “Of Mice and Men” is my favorite Steinbeck book, and I enjoy Mark Twain, unlike most of my friends.

    These days, I find myself filtering books through the eyes of a parent of young children. Yes, I get disagree with a lot of content, particularly the sex and vulgarity passed off as children’s entertainment nowadays (I kind of specialize in MG and YA). But sometimes you have to factor in a book’s value. In the case of Steinbeck and Twain, they have much to offer just as they are. Would I let my kids read them? Not yet. But eventually, YES!

    • Michelle,
      I agree. I think parents should make the choice for their own children, and not for someone else’s (as in challenging or banning a book). And I obviously don’t believe we change those books.

      I think there is a fine line between young adult and adult fiction, with one often crossing into the other (usually the young adult crossing into adult). It’s a tricky point. I teach The Giver to my freshmen and am always surprised by how many of them have read it as early as 5th grade. In my opinion, kids aren’t ready for some of the material, but I’ve also discovered that most of them didn’t even pick up on the questionable material. It was just a good adventure story for them.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  9. Funny you mention The Giver. In my early, inexperienced days of teaching, I ran into trouble with that one in a fourth grade class. How foolish I was! Another excellent discussion book, but since that time I’ve gained a better understanding of age appropriateness.

    I find that same blurred line between middle grade and young adult. I can’t believe how many ten-year-olds are reading The Hunger Games. Those are off limits till my kids reach high school. I’m just letting my 12-yr-old read Harry Potter!

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