Hating Huck - A Personal Conversation about Literature and Black Youth

From mbowen Wed Jun 2 20:15:14 1993

Jane:  This weekend I read a 'teen' editorial by a young (high school) black man in my local paper. The thrust of his comments were that public education would benefit from a more racially diverse teaching faculty. However, he opened his piece relating his experience at reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in school. He commented that his white teacher seemed oblivious to some students (I assume black) reaction to the use of the word 'nigger' in the book. He didn't go into much more depth on the subject, but proceeded to something else. 

My question is - do books such as 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Huckleberry Finn' have a place in education (high school or university), or do their use of offensive language negate any other redeeming qualities the books may offer? My personal opinion is that they can be used as timepieces, and confront people with the ugly attitudes people have (and still do) harbor. That is basically how it affected me when I was younger. I would like other peoples' opinion on this. Anyone have a personal experience with these or similar books?   -Jane

Mike: One of the most important things I remembered about Harper Lee's ONE contribution to American fiction (whose authorship has actually been a matter of some controversy) besides the fact that I did actually find it enjoyable (for the usual pre-teen reasons) is how very much my teacher *wanted* me to enjoy that particular book. So much of her acceptance to her students depended on my ability to perceive the fact that white people *can* have insight to questions of racial justice. I was her best student and the most advanced reader in the class and I do remember so much how she wanted me to encourage other students to read. Beyond the usual comic books and 'afro-bets' there was, in the early 70s, very few titles available to teachers for their black students.

What I have read in more recent criticism, has alerted me to very startling awareness to the content and context of books I read earlier in my life. I cannot begin to recount what I might have felt at the time besides the standout points and books my teachers thought would 'be good for a young man like you'. I also don't think it's entirely necessary to go over them. What's done is done. As everyone expects to get wiser, certain assumptions of youth are foregone. As an individual, I may have been offended subtly by this word and that word in the 'classics', but what was more offensive was the genre which was supposed to be good for me. I can recall refusing to read 'The Cross and the Switchblade' for just such reasons. And although I enjoyed reading books like 'The Contender' by Robert Lypsite, after a time it became entirely too tiresome. I knew that white students would never be encouraged to read such books, instead they would read the Danny Dunn or Hardy Boys series. I read both of those in their entirety (and some Nancy Drew too) and although I know it sounds corny and reactionary on one level, painting those same characters black would have meant a great deal to me as a young reader. Interestingly, when I speak of multiculturalism, I do so as one who from the beginning read more books than I was supposed to. In time, the content of one book with respect to racist speech, becomes near moot. There are simply too many excellent books without such idiotic flaws to get bogged down in criticising them. In short, I was of the attitude (and still largely am) that if white folks call blacks 'nigger' in books it's because whites call black 'nigger' in life. Neither is more or less offensive. It's really not the speech that is so offensive as WHY I must listen.

What then makes this subject worth persuing at all is the same problem that faced me as a 10 year old in Miss Milliken's class. Should I read this book because it is a good book, or should I read it because it signifies something to you and somehow validates you as an authority if I accept it. The point is not so much in the reading but in the acceptance of the book as important to your education, but then where exactly is the boundary? Was 'To Kill A Mockingbird' a book about race or a book about murder? When I read it am I learning something of value or am I simply supposed to enjoy reading it? All these are part of the many questions that such an issue raises.

So now as an adult reader, I would probably barf at the passages I had to accept as a student in books like 'Robinson Crusoe' and 'White Fang'. The student who protested is a beneficiary of the example of of black critics who have rightly questioned the authoritative position of the narrow list we all eat as the gruel of our upbringing. But his and our intent is likely identical. We don't want to be force-fed. Why teachers insist on such books is pure lazy prejudice. But should we be surprised that their content is found to be repulsive after several generations of criticism?


'At last he lays his head flat on the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as hea had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjugateion, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.' -- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

'The problem of internalizing the master's tongue is the problem of the rescued. Unlike the problems of survivors who may be lucky, fated, etc. the rescued have the problem of debt. If the rescuer gives you back your life, he shares in that life. But if as in Friday's case, if the rescuer saves your life by taking you away from the dangers, the complications, the confusion of home, he may very well expect the debt to be paid in full.' -- Toni Morrision, 1992

'We were in Catholic School, safe from those Crips and Brims at Mount Vernon and Miss Sweet would not let us forget that. We were the chosen, and could even be God's favorites. Not 'Jeeeesus', but the God of the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary... There was nothing she liked more than having us all sing 'To Sir With Love' to her. I had never seen the movie, but she said that Sidney Poitier was the perfect teacher in it. Even though I thought Sidney was a little bit okey doke, I could see her point. Then again, I didn't have much choice. We sang, it seemed, almost every day. I was sick enough about 'crayons to perfume' and the Act of Contrition, to stop singing and praying but not enough to go to Mount Vernon.' -- Michael Bowen, 1993

Jane: Ok, if you don't mind, let me see if I understand correctly some of the things you said in your message:   Your teacher wanted you to enjoy the Harper Lee book, and you feel she had some personal investment in whether you liked it or not?

Mike: Yes. I was her favorite student.

Jane: She wanted to show you that whites could have insight into racial issues,   and that the book would prove that to you?

Mike: It was something that she, as a young white woman teaching at an all black elementary school, had to prove. In some ways it wasn't difficult for her because she was adopted by black parents. In other ways it was because of the ways she represented herself. This particular teacher was much better than Miss Sweet, however. And I did very much admire Miss M. 'To Kill A Mockingbird' represented the best common ground that she could find. The book meant a great deal to her.

Jane: You said she wanted you to encourage others to read. Do you mean to encourage   other students to read books *like* Lee's book, or just to read in general?

Mike: I read all the books before every other student. The books I would recommend would then be read by other students. Of course, this teacher, Miss M. would provide my reading list. I was the junior role model. If I was to say, out loud, that I am sick and tired of reading stories about white people, where would that leave the class? I was not only supposed to like reading, I was supposed to like reading particular books. The 'good' books, the challenging books. The books that could make me smart, like my teacher. This is what all students were supposed to do, the good students especially. Lee's book was one of her favorites, so she wanted it to be one of my favorites; of course it could never mean the same thing to me as it did to her.

By the way, the other book she found for me was 'Call It Courage'. At first I hated it, because it was a story about a black kid on an island. I recall that it involved headhunters, but I can't be sure. At any rate, the kid was loinclothed and had his own spear. I refused to read it, then I read it and liked it very much despite myself. I wonder how I would feel about the story today. Would I give it to my son?

Jane: Were the white students in your class reading To Kill a Mockingbird? or  did your teacher pick this book for you only?

Mike: There were no white students in any class I ever attended until the 9th grade. I would go to her father's bookstore sometimes and ask for more books. I would be looking in particular for books about kids my age and intelligence. There were none which were black-oriented. Thus, the standard list. All of these books were 'extra-credit' and a majority of the other kids were reading SRA. Miss M. brought revolving bookracks to the classroom and the books that I and other students read were placed there for the rest of the class's extra reading after they graduated from their SRA color groups.

Jane: You resent now that you were directed as a youngster to books like Lee's.   I'm not familiar with the other two books you mentioned -'Cross and the Switchblade' and 'Contender.' No matter, I'll look into them sometime. I'm sorry this response is so choppy. You've brought up a lot of issues, and I'm trying to understand your views and experiences. In your last paragraph  you question the fairness of having to read things like 'White Fang' and  'Robinson C.' because they contained passages demeaning blacks in some way.  Do you have similar feelings about having to read Harper Lee's book and others  like it?

Mike: I resented it then, but felt quite confident that I was doing the absolute best that could be done. As far as everyone knew, books with the wit and character of the Danny Dunn series were simply not written for black kids. I frequented Hall's and the Aquarian Bookstores, both legendary black bookstores in Los Angeles. I went to the city and county libraries and my father had, and continues to have a great library in house. I fairly much accepted that this was the burden of intelligent black folks. Just as my father and I would curse out Huntley-Brinkley on TV, we would have to watch it anyway.

By the time I reached the 7th grade, I was told that if I was to be college material, I would have to read Bronte. Miss Sweet offered up the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelly and really nothing else. I dove into science fiction and Lipsyte. The only other assigned books that I read in the 7th & 8th grades were 'Hiroshima' and the beginnings of 'Silent Spring', the details of which I figured were obvious to an inveterate hiker such as myself.

Hersey's book left a tremendous impact on me, as I was already fascinated by science. I read this about the same time as Watergate was going on and I was in Catholic School. Having accepted by 8th grade, the black man's burden in social/literary matters, I would of necessity discount all these wrong white folks. They just didn't get it.

It wasn't until the 11th grade that I was exposed to 'Big Boy Comes Home', 'Dry September' and 'Battle Royale' in Short Story. I read Roots and was simply overwhelmed that year. My father pointed me to 'Simple' and 'Beale Street' but most of his books were over my head. I always recall attempting to read 'Blues People' and finding it far too difficult. That it was written by a black man was awe inspiring to me and that it sat with hundreds of other books by and about blacks was also impressive. Still, there was very little in between the very simple books for young black readers at the elementary school level and the more complex works like 'Native Son'. So in developmental reading, gathering skills, you have a bunch of books like 'Tom Sawyer' in between.

As a young teenaged boy, there is a fairly standard raft of readings one gets. I found few worth persuing. By the time I was in high school, I was highly literate but found few things of interest. Books such as:

Were, in the main the order of literature. I only read Golding. That again was Jr High assigned. I did read 'Red Badge of Courage' and 'Billy Budd' as well as 'Bride Comes to Yellow Sky' in High School. Mishima's short about the soldier coming home to commit seppuku was an assignment I liked. Quite frankly, I think short stories are the best for teaching. Anyway you get the flavor of the whitish maleish. Oh did I mention Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe? Lot's of that. The main problem is that one is assigned reading which is supposed to make you a more intelligent and better person and it is all done at the expense of who you actually are as you read. If reading about Oliver Twist makes me smart what does reading about Kunta Kinte make me? What does reading about Huckleberry Finn make me? What about Boo Radley? When reading about black folks in my educational process comes at the expense of me having to deal with stereotypes or disrespected / tragic characters it says that my discomfort in sympathy is to be expected. Somehow I am manipulated.

Literature did not become interesting to me until 'Big Boy'. By then I was a tech weenie. It could have been taught four years earlier. Nobody ever teaches any of the other Stephen Crane and I have heard great words for his insight on America. Teachers tend to gravitate towards 'The Great Gatsby', another book I have avoided.

I am forgetting (wow!) Steinbeck, whom after a time also depressed me. I remember reading and re-reading passages to try and figure out what kind of white man he was. I recall the contempt in which he was held by many of my prep-schoolmates. I came entirely prepared for the Reagan era backlash.

Getting back to the subject of racist speech. I overheard the other day in Faneuil Hall a white woman talking presumeably to some co-workers something about 'sexist remarks' with a scowl. By the time I had finished at the ATM and walked by, she was laughing and joking with these same folks. This tempers, yet again, my weighing in against it. Not only because I just finished reading 'Japanese By Spring' and because of my early acceptance of th 'burden' but because I know clearly that racist speech is so easily identified that its identification can be misused. By concentrating on the speech what license do we give to hacks?

Again, white folks calling blacks 'nigger' continues and will continue. It's offensive and plain. But reading Toni Morrison's compilation is so much deeper than simply watching Clarence and the Senators belch filth in public. It's not so difficult to eyeball and disparage the ugly parts; that's not the skill needed, nor is the surface offense so offensive in the long term. Gettin at the reasons we must sit through it and the ideas which motivate the presenters is the critical duty. How can we be sure that the new sentries are also warriors?

I can see how well meaning folks like Miss M. can disrupt the direction of a legitimate complaint. It is not simple nor obvious what I lack from not being able to speak in the same environment as the young black teen who voices my same complaint 20 years later. Yet I feel it and know it. I have recovered, and what was obvious then remains obvious now. There is something wrong with black students having to read the books they do without a healthy amount of their healthy selves as subjects. More importantly there is something very wrong about the unquestioned authority of teachers in presenting such materials as *the* avenue to intellectual success. This was something I was incapable of saying aloud back in the day, such an argument was unacceptable. We were still Negro in that respect.

- I will write as long as you ask and as long as I feel there is something of interest to say. Isn't it fascinating that all this goes unwritten in all of us until now?