Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Context


"But controversial language in fiction can lead to powerful discussions, deeper understanding of sensitive topics and critical thinking. Diversity of race and experience can add insight and perspective to classroom discussions. Students can often be the guide to what is right and fair."

My workshop has come and gone. I was slightly nervous because I hadn't done this kind of teacher workshop for a few years. It's always frustrating to have to modify the time as you go. Knowing just when to start, dealing with people who enter after you have begun, and then all the anxiety surrounding does anybody care?
ten people attended. Not as many as I hope for, but then not one or two which I feared. I know using Alice Walker's short story Elethia was going to be problematic. Aside from the intensity of the topic: racism, racist advertising icons, covert action...there was "the N word."
I know it's the context that's important and Alice Walker provided that. My gut tells me that any kind of censorship is cowardly so I forged ahead. Did I get it wrong?
Here's the thing: The story is a powerful tale that involves some adolescents removing a racist stereotype from a restaurant window, burning it, and keeping some of the ashes for a talisman so they remember the pain of the past. I was using it as a springboard to have these teachers write about something that would function as their own talisman. I think the workshop went well. A few people shared their writing which as always was outstanding. So many teacher write so well. But afterwards the dissonance in my mind began to grow. Did I get it wrong? Fortunately, the woman assigned to facilitate the workshop for me (that means collect the evaluations, close up the room, etc.) was a local teacher who gently stated that " these days we don't use literature with the n-word because we don't want our students to use it or be exposed to it anymore."
I must have got it wrong.
But today, I spent a couple of hours researching the issue. If nothing else, I think I'll write a piece about this issue. There are teachers and writers and social activists who have weighed in on the issue. Especially useful were a couple of articles from Teaching Tolerance and the words and experiences of Emily Bernard, an African-American woman who happens to teach ethnic studies at the University of Vermont. This is a complex issue, to be sure. The quote above comes from one of the articles I read. It reminded me that I am interested in powerful discussions and deeper understanding that comes from facing difficult topics. When I read in another article that many teachers simply do not read words that are racist, regardless of context. Many simply avoid anything that might be interpreted as controversial.
Other articles I found detailed a litany of books that have been banned because of the language they contain. Some of the regulars like Catcher In the Rye, and Huck Finn were present, still others cited were Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird.
I get that some of these texts might need to be replaced because they are dated or considered the same old chestnuts. But preventing students from reading them because they contain rough language like the n-word, is chilling to me. It's the context folks...the context in which that work is used.
I even found an article by a teacher whose students found the word Negro offensive when he used it to replace "nigger." Where's the context?

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