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North Pointe Now

Learning through literature

By Alex Harring, Managing Editor

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Two weeks ago, a Mississippi school district made national headlines for pulling “To Kill A Mockingbird,” a historical fiction piece with a resonating message about equality and social injustice, from its curriculum. The school district released a statement, saying “the book made people uncomfortable.”

Well, that’s the point.

Harper Lee’s timeless critique of the unspoken racism in the South during the Great Depression wasn’t made for people to read with a smile. Influenced by the Scottsboro trial and the oppressive Jim Crow laws, Lee never had the intent of quelling the tide. She wanted to make people think, and as that Mississippi school district noted, make people “uncomfortable.” But, unlike what the district implied, in a way that is beneficial for the reader.

When I read about how Atticus was treated for defending a black man and the plight of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley in Freshmen English, it was my first experience with mature text that depicted the treatment of minorities before the civil rights movement. The book and the classroom discussions that came with it were my first time truly feeling like I was in the real world.

There’s no question that I grappled with what I was reading, but I learned. Being uncomfortable is often a precondition for change and growth within the human race. When Rosa Parks refused to stand on the bus, or when Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington, they weren’t expecting for everyone to sit by contently. They knew that in the 1950s and ‘60s that many people weren’t open-minded to the idea of equal rights regardless of race, so they made them open-minded.

They wanted people to be shocked. They wanted people to be a bit rattled and tense. They wanted to make people uncomfortable because often times, being uncomfortable is necessary for people to learn.

When Parks stood her ground and when King led one of the biggest marches in the capital’s history, they did it with the intent of making people uneasy. The people on the bus who turned away from Parks and looked the other way, and those who turned off the radio or changed the channel when coverage of King’s march came on could no longer pretend that civil rights didn’t need to be addressed.

In 2014, a district parent complained about “Huckleberry Finn,” a satire set in the 1840s that was meant to inspire change, because of its use of racial slurs. Calling for the novel to be removed for the curriculum, the parent said that it didn’t need to be in the school, and there were other books that could take its place.

The novela classicwithstood the minor bump in the road. It is still in the American Literature curriculum, with a pre-note from the district that teachers read with the class about the appropriate use of slurs when reading in the classroom.

No one can deny that the language in “Huckleberry Finn” is extremely derogatory. However, it is writing like this, although potentially uncomfortable to read, that can teach us the most. The language, like Parks’ decision to stand or King’s march, makes you open your eyes and think about what you are looking at, whether you want to or not.

When I began reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” I remember thinking during a class discussion about how even though I knew segregation was a part of our nation’s history, I never took the initiative to learn more about it before it was required reading. This was because it made me nervous, so when I read the book, it opened my eyes to history and perspective that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. How could I have not seen the importance of this book and its historical content before it was dropped on my desk by Mrs. Sexton?

In a student body and world so richly diverse as ours, it is the books that may make us uncomfortable that we need. They are going to be the books we remember reading. The classroom conversations about them are going to be the ones we remember having. They are core titles in our curriculum because our district wanted us to have this shared experience in the classroom.

Although we may not realize it at the time, reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” in our English classes shapes us into who we are as citizens of our ever-changing world. Being uncomfortable while reading them makes us focus and understand the text and its real-world implications in a way that can benefit us as people, students and citizens of the world.

Trust me, the uncomfortability is worth it.

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