Almost all high school students in America are required to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and/or Huckleberry Finn. English teachers use these books to teach critical thinking skills and help students better understand the evolution of American culture, but what do novels like the ones listed teach students about discrimination and racial slurs? Teachers should try to eliminate the use of racial slurs in literature to avoid making students feel uncomfortable or discriminated against.
The N-word is said 48 times in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and appears 219 times in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, both of which were written by white authors. As a result, the books have been taken out of many high school English classes.
Although teachers may argue that the use of the N-word in literature is simply a reflection of history, the use of the slur is still offensive to students, regardless of how casually it is used in books.
“I never read the word aloud and I don’t make students read these books aloud either,” said Nation Ford English teacher Amanda Murphy. “Some students feel comfortable with it and some don’t.”
Teachers should aim to find another way to educate students on the intolerance of cultural differences prevalent in the time of these works. Reading books out loud to a class that contains such oppressive language creates controversy about what can be read and who it can be read by. Teachers should try to avoid reading these books out loud to the class and letting the students read them out loud.
“The word is not hurtful, how it’s used is hurtful, the person saying it is hurtful,” said David Bradley, who is an author and professor at the University of Oregon, in a CBS 60 Minutes interview.
In the same 60 Minutes broadcast, the reporter learned that the publisher of Huckleberry Finn released a censored version of the story replacing the N-word with the word “slave.” The story was censored for schools to use if they felt uncomfortable using the original text. This term, however, was not any better for the story. People felt as if the word “slave” was equally as hurtful as using the N-word.
Teachers have several ways of handling these situations.
“I once had a student that felt uncomfortable reading [Huckleberry Finn], so I gave him an alternative assignment,” Murphy said.
“I provide students with articles that discuss the use of these terms in literature and society.” English teacher Richard Solt said.
Students have also shared some other ways that teachers handle racial slurs.
“In the past, I’ve had teachers simply skip over slurs and other controversial words,” said Nyla Riley (‘23). “This year while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, my teacher played an audio version for chapters that had slurs.”
Teachers should always aim to make sure their students are comfortable reading the material before assigning it. Even if students seem comfortable reading the material, teachers and students should not be allowed to read racial slurs in books out loud in the classroom.
Teachers should educate students on why these words are used prior to reading the text, and they should be open to hearing students’ opinions about how they feel about reading books with these words in them. All instructors should try their best to help students understand why the texts are being read. If students are not comfortable with reading the assigned material, teachers should be willing to provide either a censored version of the book, or another assignment entirely. No student should have to feel attacked reading something in their own classroom.