Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context

Daniel de Vise, Washington Post, July 13, 2007

Montgomery County educators are replacing a lesson that called for students to read about and discuss a racial epithet against African Americans as a precursor to reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in ninth-grade English classes.

The lesson, called “Questionable Words,” focused on two reading selections, an essay and a poem, each dealing with the epithet and how the author was hurt by its use. Curriculum officials reexamined the lesson after an African American student told the school board in the fall that the class had upset her.

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The complaint from Maya Jean-Baptiste, a 15-year-old at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, marks a departure from the usual protest of racially insensitive language in classroom literature. {snip}

Maya said she walked into English class one day in the fall to find the desks arranged in a semicircle. The teacher passed out copies of an essay called “The Meaning of a Word,” by the African American writer Gloria Naylor, which recounted the first time the author heard a young classmate use the “N-word.” Maya’s class was preparing to read Harper Lee’s coming-of-age saga.

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An official of the county NAACP accompanied Maya to a school board meeting in November and asked that the board “immediately abstain” from teaching the lesson.

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Each year brings fresh attempts by parents and civic groups to challenge racially insensitive literature in the public schools. The most common target, education leaders say, is not Naylor’s provocative essay, which isn’t widely taught in high schools, or even Lee’s novel, but rather “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Both books are standard fare in high school English classes. Twain’s book, peppered with epithets, is considered more inflammatory.

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Education scholars recommend that teachers prepare students for books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” with historical images and writings that explain the time and place in which the works are set. This can—and should—be done without dwelling on racial slurs or reading inflammatory material aloud, said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, a Twain scholar and former Harvard University professor who works in the education division of Discovery Communications.

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D.C. parents may opt not to have their children read Lee’s book, which is taught after a preparatory lesson on Jim Crow, civil rights and the justice system, according to John White, a spokesman for the school system. “Huckleberry Finn” is not taught in the school system. Arlington students read “Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn,” prefaced by lessons on epithets and “why the words are no longer used,” said Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for the school system.

The Twain book is taught, although not required, in Fairfax high schools. Instructional materials call for students to “examine the cultural and political impact of language” in books of that era.

Montgomery students read “Mockingbird” two years before “Huckleberry Finn.” In the past three years, they have prepared for Lee’s book by reading Naylor’s essay and the poem “Incident,” by Harlem Renaissance figure Countee Cullen.

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An alternative lesson, to be taught in the fall, replaces the essay and the poem with a piece by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called “What’s in a Name,” which tells of the disparaging treatment of his father by a white man, who refers to all black men as “George.”

Students also will study a pair of Library of Congress photographs depicting the Jim Crow era: a girl drinking at a segregated fountain and a man entering the “colored-only” section of a theater.

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