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6 January 2011, 1:00 pm 3 Comments

Not Your Average Prom Queen: No “N” Word in Huck Finn. What’s Next, No Gays at Stonewall?

This post was submitted by Jean

Credit: AmericasLibrary.gov

Did you learn about Stonewall in your high school history class? Did your 10th grade English teacher mention that Walt Whitman was gay? How about Langston Hughes? When you starred in your high school Spring musical, West Side Story, did anyone mention that composer Leonard Bernstein was gay, too? I’m going to bet for most of us that this information was omitted from curriculum and discussion. Gay individuals and gay themes often don’t make appearances in curriculum, and if they do, challenges of subject matter are often quick to follow. Gays aren’t the only ones who get glossed over in text books. Other minorities, often racial, are frequently framed as tangents to white progress, rather than as equal part of the history of this country. We are all “others” in the story of U.S. history.

We struggle everyday with opening up the minds of our friends and neighbors to awareness of minorities. We work to eliminate words like “gay” and “retarded” from daily vocabulary to help protect minority students, to celebrate Black history and Women’s history month, to study the Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King, Jr, to create a more understanding and accepting future. We can hope that someday the history of the Gay Rights Movement will be present in every discussion about the Constitution and that it will be encouraged to discuss how the sexual or racial identity of an author, musician of director informed his or her work. We can hope.

Unfortunately, it also seems that in some places in this country’s curriculum development hasn’t just hit the brakes, it has gone in full speed reverse.

Last May in Texas, school board officials removed mention of Thomas Jefferson as an influential philosopher from the state education standards (it is suspected this decision was made because he was a Deist). They also removed description of the US Government as “democratic” in favor of “constitutional republic” and the discussion of “sex and gender as social constructs” because, as one board member saw it, high school students should not be taught about “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else.”

In Arizona, this past week, Superintendent John Huppenthal demanded that the Tucson school district halt their curriculum on Mexican American studies. Also, this coming February, new editions of Mark Twain’s classic and continuously relevant novel Huckleberry Finn will be released without Twain’s original use of  the “n” word, or “Injun” – both words being replaced by the term “slave.”

Dealing with 20th century remnants of fear and intolerance in our textbooks is one thing, and perhaps permits educators to use those gaps in curriculum to highlight important issues of power and institutional discrimination, but having to watch politicians rewrite American history to fit their own agendas is absolutely devastating. I acknowledge that the decision to reprint Huck Finn isn’t quite the same as the situations in Arizona and Texas, but it is a similarly aligned attempt to cause history which makes us uncomfortable to disappear. Huck Finn is the probably the most popular and widespread record of the relationships between white slave holders and slaves in the 19th century, and removing the “n” word changes our modern understanding of that relationship, just like refusing to talk about sex and gender as social constructs encourages a belief that sex and gender never played a role in politics and social issues.

For those of you who are not bothered by the absurd curriculum changes in Texas because you do not live in Texas, be aware:

“And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, ‘Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.’”

Mariah Blake, WashingtonMonthly.com

We, liberal or progressive Americans, are fighting in more than one conflict today. We marched for equality in the military, we continue marching for equal marriage, we remind young people that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning is ok, and that it will get better, but we also need to get involved in different ways for the future of young people. Queer and minority educators, queer and minority parents, as well as educators and parents who support queer and minority issues need to speak up, vote, participate in school leadership, and stay involved – so all our progress isn’t erased from history.

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  • jill said:

    good piece, jean.

  • slade said:

    the censorship of this piece of work is ridiculous.

    you cannot change art. art is what is was created to be – to capture a time and place.

    these changes are criminal.

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