English teacher Brian Jungman has a poster featuring Atticus Finch near his desk in Duluth’s Denfeld High School.
He considers the main character in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” an inspiration in the fight against racism. But after teaching it to classes in recent years, Jungman said he understands that other books might resonate more with today’s students.
“I think it’s dated,” he said. “That book now to me reads like it was written to explain racism to primarily a white audience. My African-American population doesn’t need to have racism explained to them.”
Last week, Duluth School District administrators announced they are dropping the book from the district’s curriculum as well as Mark Twain’s 1884 novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because of the racial slurs they contain. The move has raised questions and debate about who decides the canons of literature — along with when and how those canons can change and what should be required reading in classrooms.
“One camp would be maybe an older guard that would identify the American literary canon as a precious cultural art development and want it to be protected and preserved,” explained John Schwetman, an assistant professor who teaches American literature at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The other camp favors “a healthy conversation about literature ... acknowledging changing reading tastes, changing values, changing concerns of readers.”
School administrators said the decision was made in an effort to be considerate of all students after concerns about the language were raised over the years. The books are not banned, however, and will still be available for optional reading.
“Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.
Most agree that the books are classic, important works, with stories that challenged racism.
But the liberal use of a racial slur in the texts can be hurtful for students to be forced to discuss in class, critics say. Duluth’s NAACP president, Stephan Witherspoon, called the curriculum change “long overdue.”
“We have to be willing to change things that have been in place for so long that have been a detriment to our kids of color in the schools and our community,” he said. Other books can be used, he said. “Literature that has depth that can celebrate everybody.”
Christina Trok called Witherspoon recently asking for suggestions on other books that students could read to fulfill requirements.
Her biracial son, a 7th-grader at what she calls a “fantastic” Montessori school in Duluth, is reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said. But he recently told her he wanted to stop.
“I remember feeling the same exact way,” she said.
Trok said she recalled her class reading from the book aloud in Duluth schools decades ago. As one of just a few black students, she felt uncomfortable.
Some kids were visibly uncomfortable, she said, and others snickered. Some turned to look at her. She felt “the stress response ... anxiously anticipating the word to be said out loud. I was completely distracted from the book itself. I checked out emotionally and psychologically.”
But book selection goes beyond being uncomfortable with a word, some in literary circles say. The books present a white point of view, and a movement is afoot to teach more by authors of color.
“There’s been this explosion of indigenous and writers of color, and a lot of texts speaking to younger people,” said Shannon Gibney, an African-American author and instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” she said, is “a white savior narrative ... coming out of a very particular time and place ... There’s so much black literature out there talking about those same issues.”
Engaging students in reading is especially important now, she said, “when there’s such a fight to get students off of their gadgets.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship has called the two books “literary masterpieces” that give readers a historical understanding of race relations in America. Though the racial slurs are uncomfortable, they realistically depict American history and should be addressed under the guidance of a teacher, the group contends.
“We’re potentially treating students too delicately,” said Nora Pelizzari, the coalition’s communications director. “This country still has significant racial tension and needs to grapple with that in a real way. ... Neglecting the darker stuff isn’t going to make it easier to move forward. It needs to be dealt with, and a classroom seems like the ideal place to do that.”
Duluth East High School teacher Stu Sorenson said he and his colleagues approach the books with honest discussion, empathy and concern for all students.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” he argues, is about far more than race.
“It’s also about poverty and empathy, integrity and real courage, righteousness and hypocrisy and a host of other issues that have become the fabric of the society in which we live,” he said.
Choosing a new text that addresses so many issues so engagingly will be difficult, he said, because it’s “something that is not easily replicated in this day and age.”
Duluth resident Janet Erickson said the book is her favorite, and she was disappointed in the administration’s decision. The book, she said, needs to be discussed, not read alone.
And while she agreed students need to feel safe in their learning settings, she’s not sure schools can make everyone comfortable all the time.
“You have to start manicuring every aspect of curriculum if you want to make everyone feel comfortable,” she said. “I just think it’s a road we just shouldn’t be going down.”
Duluth is hardly the first school to debate the use of the two books. Challenges to both have been waged in Mississippi and Virginia in recent years, for instance.
The National Coalition Against Censorship urges districts to have clear and accessible policies allowing parents to request alternative assignments, but not to remove books from the curriculum or the schools, Pelizzari said.
Duluth School Board Member Nora Sandstad said she supports the administration’s decision, emphasizing that it’s not a ban on the books. She cited the district’s achievement gap and efforts to bring in more teachers and administrators of color.
Of the students in the Duluth district, 77 percent are white and 6 percent are black. The 2016 graduation rate for black students was under 50 percent, compared with about 80 percent for white students.
“We have been underserving our students of color for way too long,” she wrote in a statement. “When a community of color approaches the district with a suggestion as to how better serve their/our students, we must listen.”
Kier Zimmerman, a 2015 Duluth East graduate, said she read “To Kill a Mockingbird” with her mother when she was young and identified so much with tomboy character Scout that she made her father call her Scout.
When she read it again in school, the story became even more relevant, she said, because her teacher paired it with teaching about the 1920 Duluth lynching of three black circus workers, which she described as “eerily similar.”
“That, to me, was incredibly powerful,” Zimmerman said.
Her former East classmate, Crystal Wirtz, now at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, said she doesn’t remember feeling uncomfortable while discussing the book as one of only a few African-American students in her classroom. Teachers were straightforward about the language, and it was made clear that it’s not appropriate to use today, she said.
Teaching students about racism will always present challenges, she said. “There’s never going to be a completely sugarcoated way to talk about racism,” she said, “because it’s so nasty.”
Schwetman said the book discussion is healthy, whatever is decided.
“Any conversation we have about it is good, even if it’s a difficult conversation,” he said. “To have people in Duluth talking about literature? Great!”