How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 3 – Appropriateness

Note: I apologize for the delay in adding this post. The people installing Google Fiber in our neighborhood accidentally cut our existing cables, so we have been without internet from early Tuesday morning.

Earlier in this series I wrote about the dilemma a student might have for writing an essay for the 2019 AP English Literature exam based on The Hate U Give (written by African American female author Angie Thomas) because it was not on the list of suggested books for that question.  Obviously, the problem would be eliminated it it were on the list of suggested books.

Published in 2017, the book earned  a number of prestigious literary awards in 2018.  The American Library Association (ALA) gave the book three of its top honors; it won the William C. Morris Award for best debut book for teens and the Coretta Scott King Award for the best novel by an African-American author for children, and was an honor book for the Michael L. Printz Award for best novel for teens.  It was considered for the US National Book Award and the British Carnegie Medal for young adult literature, and it won both the teen and the overall best of Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the American Bookseller’s Association Indie Award for Best Young Adult Novel of the year.  

I wrote previously about the work that can be involved in finding high quality books from diverse authors that are a good fit for a high school literature class.  However, in this case, it seems like the work has been done for us.  If the American Library Association considered it worthy of multiple awards, why wouldn’t The Hate U Give be on an AP suggested book list?

Maybe because in 2018, The Hate U Give was also #4 on the American Library Association’s database of the most frequently challenged or banned book among in libraries and schools.  Community members, including many parents, urged removing the book from schools and libraries for its “pervasive” vulgarity and profanity, sexual content, and objectionable teen behaviors, particularly drug use.  In addition, a police union in South Carolina objected to the book being an option on a summer reading list, complaining that it generated negativity towards police.  While that school kept the book on its list after a review of the complaint, a school district in Texas with an enrollment of over 70,000 students removed the book from all of its school libraries due to its use of profanity.

So while schools might have prestigious award organizations on the side of the book, they might also have parents—the people paying the taxes or the tuitions that fund the school— protesting that is unacceptable for their children.  That’s not a situation that schools or individual teachers like to find themselves in.

This has been one of my biggest issues in providing a more diverse and contemporary voice in my reading lists.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really liked a modern YA novel by a black or diverse author, only to decide that the level of profanity, sexuality, or graphic violence was just too high for use in my class, at least as a required book (I always suggest related extra credit books, so a lot of those kind of books end up on that list).

Personally, I don’t swear.  My son doesn’t swear.  My husband, however, swears enough for all three of us.  Use of profanity won’t keep me from reading a book, nor did I object to my son reading books containing words he doesn’t use once he became a teenager.  But it is a major red flag for many parents, especially in the homeschooling community.  Students in my class don’t use profanity, and neither do most of their parents, at least in public.

With its prevalence in black urban contemporary YA novels, though, I assume that profanity is used extensively among those teen communities.  This, then, is the challenge.  These books from diverse communities can teach us a lot about people many of us don’t know or associate with on a regular basis.  However, one of the things we might learn is that they commonly use language that we might find objectionable.

The same is true of the difference in conduct between these communities.  Homeschool students in particular tend to be more conservative in their romantic activities.  Yes, there are teen dances and proms and group activities and such, but the majority of my students don’t really date in high school, let alone become sexually active.  Most of my students don’t drink, aren’t really interested in drinking, and wouldn’t even dream of smoking cigarettes, let along illegal substances.  The teens in most of the black YA novels that I think would be so valuable for my students to read, well…many show less restraint in such matters.  Actually, the “showing less restraint” part is pretty typical in realistic contemporary YA novels by white authors as well.  However, it usually isn’t as extreme, particularly in the use of profanity…at least the ones I’ve read.

Let me state clearly that I’m not saying this is true of ALL black or diverse books, or ONLY black or diverse books.  In fact, looking at the ALA data, it appears the issue that has been the most controversial for most of the past decade has been books with LGBTQIA+ characters, themes, or content. That is another minority population, but it transcends racial categorization. It is a growing

And this is not a new issue.  When J.D. Salinger, a white male author, published The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, it was critically acclaimed but there was also an uproar among readers who found the book highly “inappropriate.”  In the classroom, from 1960, when a teacher was fired for using that book in class (the teacher was reinstated, but the book was banned from the school) through 2009, when it was one of the ALA’s top ten challenged books for the year, it has provoked controversy.  According to a 2003 article in Modern Language Review, from 1961 to 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the book most challenged in US high schools and libraries.  Author Sylvia Andrychuk claims that in 1981, The Catcher in the Rye had the unique distinction of being both the most censored book and the second most commonly taught book in US public schools.  Why has the book been challenged or banned in so many schools?  The community has complained about the big trinity of vulgar language/profanity, sexual content, and inappropriate teen behavior.

The lesson of The Catcher in the Rye (which was one of the books on the AP list from my last post) is that we have been having these arguments about what books are “appropriate” for our students for a long time.  Indeed, another classic that has been frequently attacked since its original publication in 1885, when some libraries banned it for its crudeness, coarse language, and inappropriate behavior, is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Some critics today argue that it should not be used in the classroom for its use of the N-word, and there is a 2011 version of the book in which that word has been replaced by the term “slave” in an attempt to offer a more school-friendly version.  Of course, altering Twain’s original language has generated controversy as well.

My point is that books with bad language, explicit sexuality, and/or behavior we would prefer our students not emulate HAVE made it into our high school classrooms.  The same could happen, and has happened in some schools, with The Hate U Give and some other, let’s say “edgy” black or diverse literature.  However, it may require a teacher and/or school system that is willing to fight for it if there are community complaints. And the number of book challenges in 2019 grew 14% over the figures from 2018.

Some classes definitely have added some of these books that some parents might question.  However, it is one factor that makes some teachers, including me, hesitate to include some of these books by more diverse authors into our high school reading lists.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss one last factor that leads to white bias in literature studies in high school.

Click here to see my Introduction to this series, see How White Bias Becomes Institutionalized in Literature Classes: An Introduction.

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 1 – Testing

Click here to see How White Bias Gets Institutionalized in Literature Classes: Part 2 – Teacher Work Load

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