I’ve been aware for quite some time that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer have consistently ranked high on the list of books most often challenged in public libraries due to the presence of “racial stereotypes,” etc., in these books. To Kill a Mockingbird has also been challenged for its “racism.”
Over the past year, much has been said about whether or not statues of figures from the Confederacy should be removed and if streets, schools and other public buildings named for such should be renamed, since they can be seen as honoring “heroes of racism,” or other such statements.
I remember many years ago when I was teaching a class in “critical thinking” (a class I never cared for and thought was ill-conceived when it was designed) that there was reference in an exercise as to whether a South American aristocrat in the 1700’s (as I remember it) was justified in killing his wife and her lover when he discovered that she was unfaithful to him. The correct answer was, of course, “No!” But, the reason was not that it was against Biblical teaching, or some such; it was that this is not considered acceptable in contemporary American society.
There’s been considerable controversy over having a pro football team called the “Redskins,” and, as I understand it, similar objections to having college teams called the “Seminoles,” the “Fighting Sioux,” etc. because these are references to “Native American” tribes (as is “Illini, by the way, and probably other team names). The assumption, again, seems to be that they were intended to be derogatory. I haven’t heard of objections to the hockey “Blackhawks,” but there have probably been such and the list could probably go on at length, I suppose.
Okay, I will accept the idea that “Redskins” is often considered a term with somewhat negative connotations, but I find it hard to believe that the people who selected it, or the other names, went out of their way to choose team names to cheer for which were intended to be offensive and to show the “superiority” of those who don’t fit into the category.
Of course, a “Hoosier” has been defined as “any awkward, unsophisticated person, especially a rustic,” which doesn’t make it seem an obvious choice for Indiana (the state, or the university) to choose to describe those who live in that state, or for its university students or alumni. Of course, as an IU alum (twice) I can probably get away with using that term, since that isthe established name. Still, I don’t consider team mascots and logos to be of world-shaking importance.
On the other hand, I am enough of an historian to argue that it’s important for us as a society (and a world) to understand and accept our history, as well as to figure out a way of not repeating the actions which were undertaken by our predecessors, but which are no longer accepted as appropriate and/or legal. Do I accept the notion of the acceptability of so-called “honor” killing? NO! I consider such things appalling. However, I do understand that in an aristocratic society which was as extremely sensitive to class, race and strict social proprieties as was true in South American a couple of hundred year ago, things might well have been different. This was a society, after all, which considered the behavior of a wife to be a reflection on her husband and wives, and daughters, WERE accepted, socially and legally, to be the property of their husband/fathers. In such a society, such things as “honor” killings did occur and were considered acceptable and proper, or at least non-criminal offenses. We need to understand the truth of the fact that morality is NOT an absolute. Situations change! Progress (changes), even in morality, is possible. In earlier times we killed people by hanging, drawing and quartering them. (Look up what that means, if you want.) or by stoning them to death. Executions used to be held in public and were considered “entertainment.” We don’t do that anymore, although we still do, in some places, execute (kill) some convicted persons. (We just executed someone in “pro-life” Nebraska, just the other day. The last time I read the Commandment, it simply said, “Thou shalt not kill,” but I can’t, of course, read the original, so I suppose that I could have misunderstood.
Having lived in the South for many years, I have long been exposed to the statues honoring “our Confederate dead,” or, as the statue on the courthouse steps in Sylva says, “Our Heroes of the Confederacy.” Even though I was raised in the North, I don’t really have a lot of problem with such things, provided that we understand what these statues, etc., mean and why they were erected. Personally, I’m not completely convinced that, it allcases, they were created for the purpose of racial intimidation, although the timing of their erection, in many cases, does seem to suggest that this may have been at least a partial motive. Still, the non-white population of Jackson County North Carolina isn’t (and I don’t believe ever has been) particularly large. In fact, there are currently about six times as many “Native Americans” there than there are African Americans, so it seems that the Confederate statue on the courthouse steps couldhave been simply to honor those who died, rather than an attempt to provide racial intimidation. In fact, the courthouse was built in 1913 and the statue was erected in 1915, so the motivations are not completely clear, at least in my mind. Of course, war memorials to “our glorious dead” have been around for a long time and through many wars. I admit to some reservations about any such things, but relatively few.
Statues honoring specific people from the Civil War, however, seem a good deal more problematic. Even as a “Damn Yankee” (although I have also been referred to as a “Gentleman of the North”), I can respect Robert E. Lee, and others, who made a difficult choice between their home state and their country, but that does not mean that I think they deserve great honor for, in fact, being traitors by violating their earlier oaths to defend the United States, instead turning to take up arms against it. Yes, times were different then, but treason was (and is) still treason. To argue that they were “heroes” who should be honored is to accept the idea that treason is acceptable, under some circumstances. Of course, our “Founding Fathers” were, in fact traitors to the British crown, but we don’t talk about that, and most people don’t accept that. After all, as Napoleon is supposed to have said: “History is written by the winners.”, and we got away with that one.
Consequently, in the light of the evidence that many of the statues honoring such Confederate “heroes” were erected during the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, and such groups in the late Nineteen teens and twenties, I think it’s quite probable than many of those statues were intended to “send a message” of racial and/or religious superiority to non-whites, immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and others. I believe that such statues need to be removed from places of social centrality, but they probably should be preserved in museums where the appropriate context can be explained. We need to be able to explain to ourselves and to our descendants who these figures were, why these statues were made, and why the statues were relocated. This requires compassion, care and factual information. The heritage of the United States should be based on the Truth as we best understand it, not some pseudo-moralistic idea of what “ought to be told.”
This gets me back to where I started. I will accept that Wilder may have included “… dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” I also accept that Twain may have used language which would be considered offensive on the streets of contemporary America, as did Lee. However, pretending that such attitudes and language didn’t exist (or still don’t) and suppressing artistic works which portray them accurately for the timeframe being presented, is dishonest and stupid. Sticking our collective heads in the sand and ignoring the reality of our history will NOT make things better. Understanding where we came from and why we no longer accept these attitudes MAY help us to move forward.
I confess that I really don’t know Wilder’s works, but I doubt that she used the language in question from a desire to denigrate “Indigenous people and people of color.” I suspect she was simply using the language which she felt was appropriate for those characters, in that place, at that point in history. If one actually READS Twain, it’s difficult to believe that Huck’s use of the so-called “N” word for Jim was intended as a racial slur instead of what Huck would simply have considered Jim’s name, which may not make the term any more acceptable in “polite society” today, but it does make Huck’s use of it understandable in the period portrayed.
Should we consider the idea that these books, and many, many, more may require some discussion and explanation to be properly understood and evaluated in a modern context? Yes. Shakespeare (through his characters) says a lot of unappetizing things on a lot of topics in his plays but understanding the reality of his world makes them more understandable, if not more acceptable for today’s society. So, do a great many other authors, playwright’s, etc.! What I find unacceptable is the use of language, violence and/or explicit sexuality purely for commercial purposes in “art,” be it dramatic literature or performance, movies, or fiction.
It’s not that I’m not opposed to these things in those cases where they are necessary to the story and make sense for the character/ period/locale. After all, it’s hard to avoid a crucifixion scene if you are doing a work about the life of Jesus. But, the treatment of that scene can be presented in a number of ways from the straightforward (PG version) to the, essentially, pornographic (X-rated one). A scene in a Vietnam war era barracks presenting a bunch of GIs is likely to contain different language/action from that in scene in an upper-class drawing room comedy. Determining the appropriateness of the language, or the behavior is the job of the creators of such works. I suspect that we need to require good judgement based on an understanding of both historical reality and what is acceptable in contemporary society. That’s hard to write into law, but it’s not all that impossible for people to achieve.