Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.
My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.
When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.
I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.