There is more irony in D.J. Tice’s column (“At least keep these two books as part of your personal curriculum,” Feb. 18) than the famous passage he quotes from “Huck Finn” or than Boo Radley being a savior, not a demon, in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — even more than the fact that Duluth was the site of an infamous lynching.

It is Tice’s own inability to “consider things from another’s point of view.”

Yes, he allows as how some black parents could bristle at the frequent use of the “N-word.” The thrust of his commentary, however, is to minimize that concern and instead focus on what I suppose he believes is yet another example of “thought police” at work.

Tice’s ability to take such a stand is classic white privilege.

As a high school English teacher for many years, it took me a long time to appreciate how my black students were responding to class discussions, which usually required textual references, of Pap, Huck and the Duke frequently using the “N-word.” I long felt uncomfortable teaching “Huck Finn” because of that word, but kept it in the curriculum out of such excuses as “we’ve always used ‘Huck Finn’ with sophomores” or “but it is a classic American novel.”

My classes in a mostly white school often had only two or three African-American students. And there they sat, hearing their classmates daily for a month regularly using the “N-word” under official auspices.

I remember after all these years the day I decided that Huck had to go.

A quiet girl, the middle of three African-American sisters to come through my classroom, started crying, really crying. Guessing why she was so upset, I had her step into the hall and talk to me.

“Mr. Woolman, I can’t sit through any more classes with everyone using the “N-word.” While I don’t remember how I helped get her through the rest of our “Huck Finn” unit, I do know I started lobbying my colleagues to drop the novel. Not surprisingly, the English department was fully united in dropping Twain. We did have a few hoops to jump through for the principal, but that was the last year of “Huck Finn.”

I was pleased hearing years later that that young woman had become a lawyer, who has, I like to think, upset some other institutional racist practices.

I am no Atticus Finch, a decent white guy taking a stand to help blacks. My journey out of white privilege is far from complete, but it benefited from many of my black students and colleagues caring to clue me in. I know that I am sick of reading about the “injustice” of good white folks getting a bum rap on racism.

Perhaps Mr. Tice could consult his African-American friends about the vast body of American literature that presents our racial history more responsibly and honestly than “Huck Finn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Isn’t it ironic that after generations of high school students reading those two novels about racial injustice, white America still doesn’t really “understand.”

Maybe those books are part of the problem, not the solution.


Lee J. Woolman, of Minneapolis, is a retired English teacher.