Racism and Literature for Children

M. Lynx Qualey
March 4, 2013
Comments 4

The other day, I was in a thrift store, clutching a coupon for five free books. I found picture books for my two youngest and some literary fiction for the grown-ups, but was unsure what to buy for my nine-year-old. He’s omnivorous, as I once was, and will just as easily consume Sweet Valley High as Sense and Sensibility. But he has the taste buds for interesting literature, so why not feed those.

After prowling up and down, back and forth, I settled on a tattered copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I couldn’t remember a blessed thing about the book, beyond sitting in a junior-high school classroom and hearing the words “Jem” and “Scout” and “Boo Radley” move around me, along with the acronym “T-KAM” the teacher so loved. Indeed, the book evokes memories not of itself, but of hard chairs and scribbled-on desks and the anticipation of the room darkening so we might see a black-and-white film.

When I picked it out of the thrift-store stacks, I certainly knew that the book had been banned in cities around the US. But I suppose, if anything, that worked in the book’s favor. I also remembered that some of my students at the University of Minnesota, where I’d once taught, had listed To Kill a Mockingbird as one of their “favorite books” (perhaps because they couldn’t think of another title).

If I’d been on my toes, I might have read this essay by Malcolm Gladwell before acquiring the book, or another like it. Alas, I did not.

Since I picked up the book, my nine-year-old and I have read parts of TKAM together. Usually, we enjoy our reading-time together so much. But this joint reading is decidedly not pleasurable. First, I find the aesthetic pleasures of the book rather thin compared to its status in the culture. Also, when I am involved, the reading is exceptionally slow-going, as for each short passage — for instance where Calpurnia and Scout discuss why Calpurnia doesn’t speak “proper English” with other Black folk, since she “knows” it — there is a lengthy lecture from me. (Languages are languages; there are not “proper” and “improper” ones, and speaking the English of privilege does not make one any smarter, despite what many people thought and still think; etc., etc., etc.).

Many short passages require me to really screw myself up, as they make me want to take a blunt instrument to the characters’ heads, for all their nicely-nicely Jim Crow benevolence.

Whenever we go through one of these discussions, my nine-year-old nods and nods, with apparent acceptance of my criticism. But then he returns to the book and Harper Lee goes direct to his bloodstream, with her Southern code of honor about race and language and gender and work. When I realized that the book would center on a rape — because really, I had forgotten — my heart shrank into a tiny, pea-sized thing. I was tempted to whisk the book away from him, but didn’t.

I am not sure whether I leave this book in his hands just because I don’t want to admit that I was wrong, or whether I really think that, as a US passport-holder, these are ideas he must confront, at some time, and he might as well do it with a companion who has been down these roads before.

I have not, in fact, avoided reading him books where racism informs a book’s shaping (we recently finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance). But TKAM is a book that foregrounds race, that aims to “teach” us about race in North America. I certainly understand why a parent would want to have this book removed from a school’s curriculum. I wouldn’t be happy to see it on a required reading list, either, unless accompanied by a thoroughgoing discussion of race, social class, sexual assault, gender, and history.

Unfortunately, at this level of schooling, books are left to teach themselves in the classroom, without a serious intervention from the instructor beyond “did you remember this fact? and…what about that one?” Or, “Can you make a scrapbook/art project/series of letters from one character’s point of view?”

All the books my nine-year-old reads now will shape who he will become. Sometimes, I am terrified about that, and I want to re-curate his collection, even if it is a fruitless, silly, and stifling exercise. Sometimes, I feel I need to square my shoulders and do the work of reading along with him.

Mostly, I wish I’d gotten him Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

4 thoughts on “Racism and Literature for Children

    • Good grief, that’s true. Well, I suppose I was thinking, “It wasn’t so violent and nightmare-inducing as ‘Beloved’….”

      Perhaps I should just stick to giving him Austen and forgo the rest until he’s at least 14.

    • Although I think, in general, I worry about how these books shape the internal furniture of his mind, more than his learning about the fact of sexual assault (which is already out of the bag now that he’s finished TKAM).

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