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Free Speech

L.A. Suburban School District Forbids To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and More in High School Readings

Other excluded books: Huckleberry Finn, The Cay, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.


The L.A. Times (Dorany Pineda) reports:

During a virtual meeting on Sept. 9, middle and high school English teachers in the Burbank Unified School District received a bit of surprising news: Until further notice, they would not be allowed to teach some of the books on their curriculum.

Five novels had been challenged in Burbank: Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Theodore Taylor's "The Cay" and Mildred D. Taylor's Newbery Medal-winning young-adult classic "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

The challenges came from four parents (three of them Black) for alleged potential harm to the public-school district's roughly 400 Black students [2.6% of the total enrollment]. All but "Huckleberry Finn" have been required reading in the BUSD….

And at its root, it stems from a painful personal story. Destiny Helligar, now 15 and in high school, recently told her mom about an incident that took place when she was a student at David Starr Jordan Middle School. According to Destiny's mother, Carmenita Helligar, a white student approached Destiny in math class using a racial taunt including the N-word, which he'd learned from reading "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

Another time, a different boy went up to Destiny and other students and said: "My family used to own your family and now I want a dollar from each of you for the week." When the principal was notified, the boy's excuse was that he had read it in class—also in "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." …

[T]he parents' objections are not merely over language. They also worry about the way these books portray Black history and the lessons they might impart to modern readers.

"The Cay" and "Huckleberry Finn" feature white children learning from the suffering and wisdom of older Black men. "To Kill a Mockingbird" famously stars Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Its white-savior story line reads much differently nearly 60 years after its publication.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" may have instigated Helligar's complaint, but it is something of an outlier. Narrated by a young Black girl growing up in the South during the Great Depression and Jim Crow era, it's the only novel on the list by a Black author….

I don't think the decision violates the First Amendment. A public school district may decide what to include in its curriculum, and that decision could be made by the school board rather than by teachers. Public universities have a long tradition of faculty control over what is taught and how it is taught, and various court cases recognize that; but in public K-12 school, the tradition is of administrative control, and court cases recognize that, too.

Nonetheless, these particular decisions strike me as unwise and narrow-minded, and they show just how broad a range of great literature can be excluded. The objection isn't just that the books include racial slurs (though I don't think books should be excluded for that). It's that some sophomoric students may read a book about slavery and use it to insult the descendant of slaves; how are you going to avoid that by excluding books, unless you exclude all books that mention American slavery? It's that the books "feature white children learning from the suffering and wisdom of older Black men"; but don't we want all children to learn to be open to the wisdom of people from all races? It's that books show whites trying to help blacks who are being oppressed; but aren't we trying to teach members of majority groups (and, I hope, of minority groups) that they should stand up for oppressed minorities? A pretty poor move by the School District, it seems to me.