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…
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.
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
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.”
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.
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?
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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