Take Your Huckleberry Finn and Shove It!
English Lit is making Black kids miserable. Why doesn’t anyone care?
The other day my best friend sent me a New York Times story about a Black teenager who got a White classmate cancelled. Her delayed downfall began four years ago with a three-second Snapchat video.
After the murder of George Floyd last May, Mimi Groves, a recent graduate of Heritage High School in Leesburg, Virginia, posted a message on Instagram urging her followers to support Black Lives Matter. Jimmy Galligan, an 18-year-old former classmate whose mother is Black and whose father is White, responded by posting the aforementioned Snapchat clip, in which Groves uses the N-word.
Galligan sat on the video for an entire year, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Once he did, it quickly went viral, made Groves a pariah on social media, and ruined her college plans.
The narrative reminds me of something I’ve seen play out in movies and on TV shows, though the damning video usually inspires slut shaming instead of racial reckoning. Galligan says he, like many of his fellow Black classmates, spent his years at Heritage High suffering under the profound weight of racism, and he “wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of the word.”
Will the N-Word Ever Lose Its Power to Stun Me?
It remains a loaded weapon coming from anyone who isn’t Black
In his version of poetic justice, Groves paid a steep price — probably too steep — for a problem that’s bigger than her and for behavior far worse than hers. Galligan may have taught her a lesson, but vengeance won’t likely protect him from being a target of racism in the future. I don’t see any winners here.
It didn’t surprise me that most of the first dozen or so comments I read under the story sympathized solely with Groves. That’s exactly why I expected them to be outraged. White people are always putting White people’s problems — and especially the tears of White women — over Black trauma.
I didn’t glean this knowledge from reading the comments. It’s actually been on my mind a lot lately. My sister-in-law recently told me about her ongoing crusade to rid reading lists in the Burbank, California, school district where my niece is a sophomore of books containing racist language. While exposing White students to the scourge of racism, they are inadvertently giving them racist ammunition, too.
Her activism, like so much Black activism throughout the annals of American history and like the reckoning of Mimi Groves, started with the N-word. One of my niece’s classmates hurled it at her in middle school, and when my brother and sister-in-law complained to the principal, the boy defended himself by saying he learned the word from a book he had to read for school, Mildred D. Taylor’s young-adult novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Ever since, my niece has been dealing with a steady barrage of textbook-inspired racism that makes the “Plastics” in Mean Girls look like amateurs.
In a telling bit of parallelism, Jimmy Galligan told the New York Times about the time he was mocked by a White classmate after their English teacher played a recording of the novella Heart of Darkness that contained the N-word. He complained to the principal, who, naturally, said there was nothing he could do.
I have never been naïve enough to think racism no longer exists in the United States, but I’ve been comforted by the hope that the younger generation might save the White race. I presumed they were growing up with less racist baggage than their parents and grandparents.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just 13 minutes away from Hollywood, my niece is going through many of the same things I went through 30 years ago when I was a high schooler in Kissimmee, Florida, only worse. How much things haven’t changed. Calling a White girl “fat” can get you suspended in Burbank because it might make her suicidal, but if you call a Black girl the N-word, you get reprieved because it’s in the books her teacher makes everyone read in class.
I don’t believe kids are actually learning racism from the classics, but literature can harm them in other ways. That brings me the most frustrating aspect of my niece’s story, something that’s been curiously, conveniently, and consistently overlooked by the coverage in the local media, including the Los Angeles Times.
What good is White kids allegedly learning antiracism from the classics if White grown-ups are simultaneously teaching them to diminish and disregard Black pain in real life?
Before my sister-in-law embarked on her mission, a group of teachers at my niece’s school got together and preemptively dropped Romeo and Juliet from their reading lists. Why? They decided William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy glorified suicide by romanticizing it. What if a White girl who saw herself in Juliet decided to emulate her to the death?
It’s a familiar refrain to anyone who’s been paying attention to the same old song that’s been playing on a loop throughout US history. When White adults feel White children are being threatened, their knee-jerk response is to do everything humanly possible to protect them. When a Black child feels threatened, perhaps to the point of considering suicide, they are on their own.
My sister-in-law has received a considerable amount of condemnation over her crusade, which has successfully gotten five books — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cay, Of Mice and Men, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry — temporarily removed from classroom reading lists in the Burbank Unified School District, where roughly 400 of the 15,200 enrolled students (roughly 2.6 percent) are Black. Although the books are not being taught in classrooms at the moment, they’re all still allowed in the school libraries.
One particularly nasty email came from Roger Franklin, the online editor of the Australian journal Quadrant. He’s a guy who stirred the controversy pot and invited swift backlash in 2017 when he suggested that the bomb that exploded at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 people and wounding 59, should have gone off in the studios of ABC, one of Australia’s top media organizations.
Dear Ms Helligar, I write from Australia, where I have just read of your efforts to have five books removed from school libraries, apparently with some success, and I must say I’m surprised.
It is the custom and object of white racists to keep young black people ill-educated and stupid. That you have taken up this effort on their behalf astonishes me, especially as your own daughter will be one of the victims of what is — there is no other term for it — mandated idiocy.
If you haven’t crimped your daughter’s mind to the point where she has trouble reading, get her to read you some of those ‘racist’ books. You’ll find they are not racist in the least; indeed, they are anti-racist.
Please think (if you can)
— roger franklin
PS: You might also enjoy Puddin’ head Wilson by the same gent who penned Huck Finn.
Franklin, like so many White people who go off whenever Black people speak up, comes across as being not only condescending but willfully stupid. In a follow-up email, he revealed that he spent half of his 65 years in the US and the only racism he observed was when his then-partner, a Black woman, took him home for a family Thanksgiving celebration. Did he even talk to any other Black people during “his extended stint living on 147th Street in NYC, where I was the only pale face and never once encountered anything resembling the presumption of white guilt your note piles on in industrial quantities.”
He’s still wallowing in bitter because that girlfriend’s Black family didn’t treat him with the deference he probably thinks White people deserve by default. As he wrote, the “insight” he gained from that messy Thanksgiving dinner was this: “When confronted with reality, many people prefer the comfort of their excuses and delusions.”
His lack of self-awareness is laughable. He was actually writing about himself. The blame-the-victim routine, one that has been perfected by White people and rapists for generations to avoid having to accept culpability, strikes again.
My sister-in-law and the parents who are behind her aren’t objecting to these books because the books are racist. The great American novel has rarely been kind to Blacks, if it acknowledged them at all. That’s old news.
Classic literature is littered with open endorsements of racism, from Voltaire’s Candide to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. I’d recommend many of these books to any child seeking a deeper understanding of the world, but not without giving them the proper tools of context. Racism is a difficult topic and school curricula should address it, but it doesn’t have to be done through five particular books.
Kids can learn iambic pentameter without Romeo and Juliet, and they don’t need to read To Kill a Mockingbird to understand the horrors of racism. Even if White parents are too attached to overrated books — or maybe they’re just afraid of Black people exerting power over the narrative — this is an excellent opportunity for their children to expand their reading repertoire. I suggest James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. It changed my life. It needs to change theirs.
What constitutes “racist” and “antiracist” literature isn’t even the issue here. The books being debated in Burbank are problematic because of the N-word, which, in classrooms, should be regarded as warily as the F-word or the C-word.
White children already use the N-word as a weapon against Black children. As long as these books are required reading in school, when class is in session, Black kids will be forced to hear it being uttered by the people with the most power to abuse it. What good is White kids allegedly learning antiracism from the classics if White grown-ups are simultaneously teaching them to diminish and disregard Black pain in real life?
White pain matters more, and White people are more easily forgiven their sins by other White people. Only Black kids deserve to have their lives destroyed over youthful indiscretions.
Even if these books are dropped from classroom reading lists, non-Black students can still learn about the racism their Black classmates live with every day. They don’t need The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for that. Why read about it in a book when they can learn about it from those who experience it firsthand, the Black people White people are still trying to shut up, people like my niece and my sister-in-law?
Those books aren’t going anywhere. Kids can read them on their own time, which is when many of them have to read worthy classics that might not be on their reading lists, books by Black authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. Their work might be too loaded and complicated for school curricula that A) ignore any Black history that doesn’t revolve around White people, B) are most comfortable addressing racism from a White point of view, and C) can’t even handle sex education.
Black American History Is Everyone’s American History
Megyn Kelly’s defense of blackface reminds us that many white Americans have a lot to learn.
The education system can survive just fine without the five books that have been banned in Burbank classrooms. What it desperately needs are teachers who care enough to make an effort to compile reading lists that won’t require their Black students to suffer quietly while their White teachers and White classmates repeatedly read the N-word out loud.
But as anyone who has been paying attention knows, nothing brings White people together quite like a threat to a status quo that’s drenched in White supremacy. Too them, racism is less a problem than those who dare to challenge beloved emblems of it, whether it’s Gone with the Wind, Confederate monuments, or the so-called classics.
All ‘Racist’ Monuments Are Not Created Equal
Before we demolish U.S. history, we need to face U.S. history.
Blacks are perfectly fine as long as they’re being good Negroes, subservient and obsequious like the Black help in the 1941 movie The Little Foxes. As soon as they get above their raisin’ and make waves, the moment they start looking out for their own, they become a problem and inspire people like Quadrant’s Roger Franklin to lash out.
I’m still working out how I feel about the various players in the New York Times story. I don’t think a 19-year-old White girl deserves to have her future ruined over a racist word she uttered on camera when she was 15. And I don’t applaud Jimmy Galligan. His first course of action should have been to have a private conversation with Groves as soon as he saw the video rather than going after a viral moment a year later. But then, pain often prevents us from making brilliant choices. If we are going to give Groves the benefit of a doubt because of her youth, Galligan deserves it, too.
Of course, that isn’t how White supremacy works. White pain matters more, and White people are more easily forgiven their sins by other White people. Only Black kids deserve to have their lives destroyed over youthful indiscretions.
I, for one, am not going to lament Mimi Grove’s sad fate. I’m more concerned about the invisible, nameless characters in that story, the Black kids, who, like my sweet niece, are traumatized by racism on a daily basis, racism that often goes unreported … until a White girl suffers.
Their childhoods are being ruined by racism, and their hopes for the future dimmed because some White children think it’s perfectly acceptable to use an N-word they read in books or hear in rap songs as an insult. There’s no accountability, no taking full responsibility for their actions, which might be something they learn not from just from books and US history, but from White grown-ups who still won’t accept their role in the perpetuation of systemic racism.
Everyone over the age of 10 knows what they are saying when they say the N-word, whether it’s a 15-year-old White kid or one who is still in middle school. We can’t stop them from hearing it in rap music, but the education system has the power to give them less-triggering reading material, classics they can’t use as scapegoats after making Black kids miserable.
The same White folks whose heads explode every time they hear “Black Lives Matter” expect Black students to squirm silently every time they hear the N-word in English class. To them, the psychological well-being of Black kids will never matter as much as freedom of speech that doesn’t infringe upon the happiness of White students. As long as those parents promote White supremacy at home, the classics, ultimately, will teach their kids nothing good about race.