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Can One Word Condemn a Book? January 17, 2013

Posted by Jen Habley in Intellectual Freedom.
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Written by Elyse Cregar on behalf of the AASL Intellectual Freedom Committee


With Black History Month approaching, there have been many recent articles in the media about the use of the N-word. Should we as librarians consider censoring a book based on the inclusion of one or a few of these words? Considering the age levels we represent and the budgets we have to work with, of course, we must carefully consider the value, appropriateness and educational significance of the materials we order, according to our current book selection policy. And what of books already on the shelf?  This question came up recently in my position as a district elementary librarian.

A local publisher donated a book to us that was very beautifully produced, having lots of color prints and regional stories that reached back in time. However, even though many of the stories and reproduced paintings were appropriate for middle readers, one story caught my eye because it contained the N-word. After looking over our district book selection policy, I regretfully decided not to include it in our library collection. When the editor of this book contacted me I conveyed my decision to him along with my concerns.

The editor pointed out to me that the children I served should view the truth of history as it was, not as we would like it to be, and that nothing about the word “nigger” could be construed as offensive. He felt that the tale in his volume described a good man and was, in fact, a loving tribute to this man’s memory.

My reply to the editor was that we know from researching original documents that much of history written at the time, depending on the writer, was not always the ‘truth’. I agreed that the spoken and written words in the stories in this book were in use at the time they were written, and that certainly was a truth.

“However,” I replied, “Are such stories appropriate in a 21st century collection of books for children? As we (adults) read and learn from historical documents, do we assume that George really ‘preferred being called ‘Nigger George’? ‘ Jus’ call me Niggah Geo’ge’ he would say with an infectious grin that won him everlasting friends wherever he went.

I would have to question that assumption, even in the context of the time this story was written in the first half of the twentieth century. Even though this book is a generous donation and in many ways a beautiful edition, I find it would be not only inappropriate for our collection for K – 5 students, it would quickly be found to be offensive, disturbing and justifiably questioned. It is my personal hope that the N-word will pass out of usage entirely. It is a sad reminder of a cruel time in our history. I leave it rather to adult readers to choose these materials as they will.”

A fascinating tour might take place in your own library. The folk tale section, I found out, contains some ghastly examples of what was considered appropriate back in the day. Our selection policy allows for the weeding of “antiquated materials.” Some of these tales contained myriad uses of the N-word spelled out in various forms. However, as you proceed with your own process, do consult your school district’s book selection policy. If there is no specific wording on procedures in your district, including weeding, this might be a good time to submit policy suggestions to your administrators. There are myriad selection policy resources to consult at ALA.org.

Is the value of a book, perhaps one that has received mostly positive reviews, so important that one use of the F-word or the N-word, the A-word or the SH-word, in a certain context would override any other standards? Are the classics and books of those historical periods exempt if teachers and librarians can still refer to them in an educational forum?

Some thought-provoking suggestions can be found at these sites: The Southern Poverty Law Center offers a great article and notes that this discussion/activity is appropriate for grades 9 – 12: http://www.tolerance.org/n-word-straight-talk

The controversy over the King of Contention: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is ongoing, with an interesting history of that classic to be found at http://www.betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/?p=6616

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