Tuesday, January 18, 2011

That word again

We're reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a book about a black family in Mississippi during the Great Depression, in our little homeschool this week.  It's been on my list for a while but I finally pulled it out to read for a couple of reasons.  It's on our list for Reading Olympics, a book competition my kids are participating in this year.  (Teams read books and answer questions about them.)   And, it contains the word which must not be spoken, which has been on my mind again lately.  I've complained about the word before on another blog, a long time ago.  It's time again.

Everyone's heard about and expressed an opinion on efforts to remove the word from Huckleberry Finn.  Some might also have heard about the high school that's worried about staging the play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" which contains the word, because it is so offensive.  August Wilson, the playwright, was half black, and probably used the word for a reason.  It would be ludicrous to remove it from the play.

So rather than hand Roll of Thunder off to my kids, I decided to read it to them. We haven't had a good book going for a while, and I wanted to be able to read the word and talk to them about it.  They already know they must not say the word. But I didn't want them to shy away from the book because of it.  I'm not skipping it or replacing it with "slave" (as proposed for Huck Finn) or the stupid phrase "the n-word."   That's not how the author wrote the dialog, so why would I presume to change it?

Mildred D. Taylor, the author, was hurt by criticisms for using the word.  In a speech accepting an award for her work, she said
,Now, however, there are those who think that perhaps my recounting are too painful, and there are those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists. There are some who say the books should be removed because the "N" word is used. There are some who say such events as described in my books and books by others did not happen. There are those who do not want to remember the past or who do not want their children to know the past and who would whitewash history, and these sentiments are not only from whites.

In Texas recently a Hispanic father went to the school board and asked thatThe Well be removed from school reading lists because the "N" word was used. In Orange County, California a black mother objected to her son reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in a class where he was the only African-American, and the school’s solution to her objection was to seat her son in the hall while the book was being read. In a Northern state, a black church questioned a book like Roll of Thunder being presented in the schools to its children.
I am hurt that any child would ever be hurt by my words. As a parent I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words, but as a parent I do not understand not wanting a child to learn about a history that is part of America, a history about a family representing millions of families that are strong and loving and who remain united and strong, despite the obstacles they face.
In the writing of my most recent work, titled The Land, I have found myself hesitating about using words that would have been spoken in the late 1800s because of my concern about our "politically correct" society. But just as I have had to be honest with myself in the telling of all my stories, I realize I must be true to the feelings of the people about whom I write and true to the stories told. My stories might not be "politically correct," so there will be those who will be offended, but as we all know, racism is offensive.
It is not polite, and it is full of pain.
I recommend Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which is listed for kids ten and up.  I wouldn't give it to a ten-year-old to read on his own.   It is a book read together so you can stop and talk about it, often.

My kids can't comprehend that anyone ever treated black people as they were treated in this book. They flinch when I say the word.  That is a good thing.

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