Talk About “Discomfort”…

From a recent article in the Guardian, we learn that 

A school district in Minnesota has pulled To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its curriculum, arguing that the classic novels’ use of racial slurs risked students being “humiliated or marginalised”.

The article noted that there had been no specific complaints raised from students (or, evidently, their parents) about the classic titles, but the school district was concerned that their use “created an uncomfortable atmosphere” in the classroom.

Discomfort is the whole point.

It is the role of quality literature to make readers uncomfortable. For that matter, the discomfort produced by focusing on a new or different perspective, or uncovering a truth that has been avoided, is what makes all the arts valuable windows into the human condition.

Afflicting the comfortable requires wrestling with unlovely aspects of our common life that most of us would rather not address or even acknowledge.

I was disappointed to read that the president of the local NAACP  applauded the decision.

The Duluth move was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with president of the local chapter Stephan Witherspoon saying the books were “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years”.

“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” he said. “Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them.”

Distaste for the language is understandable, but efforts to suppress certain words are what give those words their power. Looking honestly at the ugliness of racism–without efforts to convey it in a more “abstract” or “polite” fashion–is intended to produce discomfort. The immediacy of the assault on our contemporary sensibilities–within the context of profoundly anti-racist storytelling–is educational in a way that less offensive formulations that distance the reader from the reality of the ugliness is not.

That point was made by National Coalition Against Censorship.

While the NCAC said it was “understandable that a novel that repeatedly uses a highly offensive racial slur would generate discomfort among some parents and students,” the anti-censorship organisation argued that “the problems of living in a society where racial tensions persist will not be resolved by banishing literary classics from the classroom.

“On the contrary, the classroom is where the history, use and destructiveness of this language should be examined and discussed. It is there that the books’ complexities can be contextualised and their anti-racist message can be understood,” it said. “Rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for open dialogue that teaches students to confront the vestiges of racism and the oppression of people of colour.”

Using these books in the classroom, where teachers can lead a discussion about why these words are so offensive, and why the attitudes they convey have been so destructive to our country, is far better than banishing them to an “optional reading list,” where students will read them without the historical context and explanation that classroom discussion can provide.

This effort to shield students from material deemed “uncomfortable” is not unlike efforts a few years ago (I believe in Oklahoma) to eliminate incidents from the history curriculum that showed the United States in an unfavorable light.

You don’t produce patriots by lying to students about their country’s past, and you don’t produce inclusive, anti-racist citizens by pretending that racists used nicer language.


  1. “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature…” That statement displays ignorance of the works and the authors in question. Ignorance, of course, is a dynamic in censorship—its imposition and its propagation.

  2. kinda like the news from war zones,we dont get to see the bodies,only the rubble,and rabble….
    sanitation is a big buisness ya know…

  3. Another peek into our dystopian future which is already written in a book – Fahrenheit 451, also written during McCarthyism in the 50’s.

    The parallels are incredible with what is occurring today. Authoritarianism has been exposed under Trump, but it’s always been there. Previous POTUS’s play along because they are politically polished liars. Trump isn’t very good at it.

    Avoiding “discomfort” as you noted very well is the cause of our declining society. We watch our favorite biased news which reinforces our ideas and beliefs instead of challenging them. Critical thinking has been eliminated across the board. It’s all part of the anti-intellectual movement.

    In the past year, we’ve witnessed extreme censorship by our government and the private sector. It will only get worse. Instead of using their power to lead or serve the people, they are using power to oppress the people.

    “Mrs. Ann Bowles and Mrs. Clara Phelps are Mildred’s friends and representative of the anti-intellectual, hedonistic society presented in the novel. During a social visit to Montag’s house, they brag about ignoring the bad things in their lives and have a cavalier attitude towards the upcoming war, their husbands, their children, and politics.” ~ Wikileaks describing characters in Fahrenheit 451.

    Sound familiar?

  4. I have not read either of those books and I have white skin.

    Are these books loosely based upon reality?

    Why not choose to teach students with books that give the full facts about our ugly history regarding racism?

    I am angry that the books that were used to teach me in history class included horrible lies about those “savage indians”. There was not one mention about how our founding fathers came to this country and lied and stole this land from Native Americans. There was not one mention of their awful treatment of the people who lived here for centuries and cared for this land. Are our students still taught those same lies?

    Of course, when Mitch Daniels was governor he was determined to keep any books that might tell the truth about our history out of students’ hands and he was successful.

  5. “You don’t produce patriots by lying to students about their country’s past, and you don’t produce inclusive, anti-racist citizens by pretending that racists used nicer language.”


    The N.A.A.C.P.’s unfortunate action is an admission of impotence and a statement of the times. The Anti-Defamation League over the years has done similar questionable actions. Neither one has any effect at this point in time. Both are non-factors.

    You have to do something in order to bring in financial contributions when you’re only a “shell” of your former self.

    The N.A.A.C.P. boycotted the city sponsored MLK luncheon here in Jacksonville a few weeks ago. I can understand their action. However, where does that leave the future of a multi-racial society? answer: “Up Shits Creek without a paddle.”

  6. “Discomfort is the whole point.”

    As Pat commented, Sheila, you said it all with that statement. For many years I have been angered at the deletion of the “N” word from movies and TV programming as it was used in all conversations and throughout the history of this country. How can young Blacks possibly know the ugliness and pain the term caused their ancestors if they do not see it as it was used as a racial weapon. All schools should also show the actual news films of the Civil Rights Movement with the true treatment of our “colored” brothers, sisters and especially our children. I hate the “N” word but my hatred and “bleeping” it out of the context of its usage is not going to change the history of its meaning and why it should NOT be used. Maybe, but only maybe, if the younger generations (too many of them now parents themselves) understood, they would not continue using the word as part of their daily conversations.

    I have read that the state of Texas is going to, or has, rewritten their history books to portray slavery as a benefit to those chained in the bottom of ships and brought here to be sold, to mean they were promised homes, clothes, medical care and “JOBS” when they arrived. The book “Gone With The Wind” has been described as lacking truth regarding the treatment of ALL slaves; if you believe that, read “Twelve Years A Slave”. He stated that some of his “owners” did treat them better; it was the reason they received better treatment that he recognized as the sin – they were important to their owners as livestock which were also well fed and sheltered. I have not read “Huckleberry Finn” but have read (more than a few times) “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the lesson against racism is clear. I have also read (more than once) the sequel, “Go Set A Watchman” which has a surprising end regarding Atticus Finch…read it and hope it isn’t banned.

  7. Not too many years ago the N.A.A.C.P. asked for the resignation of its President. They wanted to “speak truth to power,” especially about the detrimental actions of the Religious Right. The problem with that COURAGEOUS stand was that financial contributions immediately came to a stand-still.

    So much for “speaking truth to power.”

  8. Marv; as an attorney, you would especially appreciate Atticus Finch in “Go Set A Watchman”. As for the N.A.A.C.P.; I did not renew my membership after reading more of our Civil Rights leaders histories. The virtually ignored Medgar Evers’ repeated pleas for help and more workers to register voters in Jackson, Mississippi; we know the outcome of that part of Civil Rights history. They were of little support to Rosa Parks who was their own (unpaid) secretary in the Montgomery, Alabama office; it was the support of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Dexter Avenue Church who organized widespread support. We also know the outcome of that part of Civil Rights history.

    And yet; here in the 21st Century; we as a nation have been forced back in time to refight the same battles with no end to the war in sight. The only difference is the addition, by Republicans, of entire groups of people added to the list of Blacks fighting for our rights.

  9. JoAnn,

    “Marv; as an attorney, you would especially appreciate Atticus Finch in “Go Set A Watchman”.

    Thanks. I’ll stop by the library tomorrow. I haven’t read it.

  10. These books provide a context that we fail to understand when we censor them. If we insist on applying today’s mores to yesterday’s stories, we won’t have any heroes left, except for the Paul Bunyans of our literature, clearly fictional and no relationship to reality.

  11. School Boards generally have no experience in education, and are often politicians, so avoiding talking about anything of substance is part of the job description these days.
    A real teacher would have come up with a script outline, even just a bulleted list of talking points, to discuss these works and their “problematicities.” No doubt the Board thinks they’re helping, but this kind of twitterization – condemn, prohibit, avoid – doesn’t really help.

  12. The real lesson being learned by the students up there in Minnesota is not that one should not use the “N” word, but that when the truth is uncomfortable, just ignore it. You “protect” your children at your own peril. Thought and prayers.

  13. When I was a boy growing up in a community packed solid with first and second generation white immigrants, in in a house of very inclusive parents and down the street from my mothers parents including Grandpa who was very exclusive, I heard “nigger” a lot. I also heard “kike” and “wop” and “mic” and “polak” a lot. My conclusion early in life? We are all different and all the same. They were words not definitions. In fact I learned about black culture primarity from Uncle Remus. How interesting. My mother was raised by Grandpa and turned out completely different different about race. How interesting.

    I went to school in Va and met my first racists. How interesting. I read extensively about WWII the world I was born into. How interesting.

    My decidedly liberal bent today came from all of those experiences colored by my parents acceptance of their world and openness to other possibilities.

    I wouldn’t want to have been deprived of any of those experiences.

  14. We already redact language from intelligence reports thought to divulge sensitive information that might fall into the hands of our enemies, real or supposed, but we’re too late to redact unpleasant and inconvenient language from our literary past. It’s already out there, so it seems to me that the move to remove such offensive language is a matter of context. The language we now consider offensive was not considered offensive but rather routine at the time Mark Twain and perhaps even when Margaret Mitchell were spinning their tales. So what shall we do, redact history?Tell novelists what they can write? Paint a Norman Rockwell picture on the brutal reality of human ownership in a master-slave society? I think not; discussion of such past atrocities can serve as a teaching tool for those of all colors as one never to be repeated

  15. I read these books decades ago To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I find it ironic that people would become upset that white authors are being dropped from a literature class, that is supposed to inform us about race relations. Is this white arrogance???

    “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass July 5, 1852.
    If you want discomfort read the speech. He does not need to use the “N” word to get his point across.
    Part of the speech is below:
    But, such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

    Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.

    But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

    For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs.
    Let America be America again, is powerful poem by Langston Hughes

    O, let my land be a land where Liberty
    Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
    But opportunity is real, and life is free,
    Equality is in the air we breathe.

    (There’s never been equality for me,
    Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

    I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
    I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
    I am the red man driven from the land,
    I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
    And finding only the same old stupid plan
    Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
    If you want discomfort read Let America be America again. By the way – In 1953, he (Hughes) was called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

  16. Gerald; the current Republicans appear to rewriting Civil War history with a surprise ending. Think they will succeed?

  17. Nancy at 7:12am
    Thanks for filling me in on Hoosier K-12 “education”. Now I know why we are told the grimaces in Indiana seem to result from ongoing colonoscopies.
    Want to smile again? Vote “NO” to GOP in November.

  18. Sunoa is my great-great-grandson. It’s 2031.

    Sunoa raises his hand.
    Teacher: Yes, Sunoa, what is it?
    Sunoa: This lesson says a long time ago, white people said nasty things about us black people.
    Teacher: Yes, Sunoa, they did.
    Sunoa: But I never saw it. I read a lot of books, and none of them say that.
    Teacher: Well, Sunoa, you will just have to take my word for it.
    Sunoa: ?????????

  19. There can be no doubt that a goal of the oligarchs who own this administration, including Putin and the Kochs, is the kind ignorance that makes people easy to lead through the pervasive media that they have sold us.

    Can we save freedom?

  20. As a language arts, literature, and writing teacher, I have taught both of these novels many times. Both books are significant for SO many reasons—reasons that I do not want to address in this post—but I can say that one does not teach kindness by ignoring hateful language. One addresses that language and places it within the context of both the book and society. I also taught Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in AP Literature. Painful? Yes, even for this white woman. Important? Also, yes—for so many reasons. We should talk.

  21. OPEN LETTER TO DONALD J TRUMP: Taking Care of Infrastructure:
    Here’s what the Peoples Republic Of China has planned for her people:
    Embarrassed by your failures yet?? Or proud of your windfall tax cuts.

    BEIJING, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) — Beijing municipal government approved a total investment of 28 billion yuan (4.4 billion U.S. dollars) in nine key projects dispersing non-capital functions last year.

    Nearly 60,000 staff and students, and 5,000 hospital beds are expected to be moved out of the city upon completion of the projects, according to the latest statistics by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

    Beijing plans to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 to address “big city diseases,” including traffic congestion and pollution.

    To meet the target, the local government has taken measures to move non-capital functions away from the city, such as relocating wholesale markets and closing polluting factories.

    Five colleges and universities, Beijing City University, Beijing Information Science and Technology University, Beijing Film Academy, Beijing Technology and Business University, and Renmin University of China, will either be relocated or have suburban campuses built.

    The key education projects are scheduled to be completed by 2020.

    Among the four hospitals, Beijing Tiantan Hospital is being relocated. New sites for the other three hospitals are under construction.

  22. The removal of these books by the school board or Dep.Education is a preemptive strike to prevent parental phone calls. After all, these courageous administrators might actually have to interact with their constituents. Who has time for that?

  23. As Peggy Hannon stated, “These books provide a context that we fail to understand when we censor them.” Censorship is not a solution. It imperative that we understand what has happened in the past so that we do not repeat it in the future.

  24. This may be the first time I’ve taken issue with one of Sheila’s conclusions!

    As a person who is as opposed to censorship of important books like these two as anyone here, I would like to point out a couple of things which got left out. It looks like The Guardian spun this story as a classic revisionist history/censorship story (which is a pretty easy sell to all of us liberals) and Sheila took it at face value and went from there.

    The impression I got from a long article in the Minneapolis paper, which included interviews with many of the people directly involved, was actually a little surprising and made me temper my original response. The reality of the situation appears to be that some more progressive educators in Duluth have come to the conclusion that there is a large enough body of worthy literature by authors of color related to racism that the time has come where students of color don’t always have to be educated about racism by white authors in “white savior” scenarios, where helpless black victims are rescued by heroic white saviors. (This might also help to explain the support by the NAACP.) The books have not been removed from the schools but replaced in the curriculum by other books teaching the same subject matter from the perspective of and written by authors of color, if I understand it correctly. Another interesting point that came up in interviews with people who had grown up as the only people of color in some classrooms was the extremely high level of stress and awkwardness they experienced anticipating the unavoidable use of the “N-word” by their white classmates in reading and discussing the books.

    I don’t doubt that the teachers promoting this curriculum change encourage their students to read these books outside of class.

    Reading the article in the Minneapolis paper definitely made me rethink my initial knee-jerk reaction.

  25. hmmm, part of me says well that is ‘their’ decision = and a countering voice says even louder: No it is not right. The literature is what it is – what of Typee, or Lord of the Flies or for that matter Catcher in the Rye? To me it is all false moralist garbage. You either confront the literature with sound teaching and explanation or you ban the books – ya know? just a matter of taking the time to include that literature in the syllabus for the students and making sure the teachers are willing to explain the nuance in an way the students can integrate into their understanding and contrast that to our time – I can see a whole couse of Social Studies built around this… or so he dreamed…

  26. Thanks for this Sheila. It seems our schools keep having to re-learn that censorship is the antithesis of education.

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