The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Mockingbird again - how's it done?

Continuing to mooch about on the subject of academic freedom and the Jim Crow-arbitrary sensitivity rules (after my piece yesterday), I come (via Joanne Jacobs and Tongue Tied) to a case in point [1]:
Parents of two Florida schoolchildren have hired a civil rights attorney and may sue because their kids had to hear a racial slur during a classroom English lesson...

We are, I infer, talking about nigger. Again.

The word figures 17 times in 400 pages, it seems, in A Land Remembered:
The novel tells the story of a fictional Florida family over three generations, from 1858 to 1968. Since it was published in 1984, the book and its author, Patrick D. Smith, have received numerous accolades, including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. The book won the Tebeau Prize for Florida's best historical novel in 1986.

And the incident that seemed it might threaten to get us into Fahrenheit 451 territory?:
Dale Alexander, the father of 16-year-old Maria, said his daughter was "humiliated" in September when her teacher, Maria Dawson, read a passage containing the word "nigger" aloud and several white students in the class turned around and snickered. Melvin Yorker, the father of 17-year-old DeMario, said his son, who was in a separate class from Maria, felt the same way.

Now, one might say that Ms Dawson had cojones of steel, or was plumb loco, given the way things are these days, to do such a thing. The father says
The teacher when she read it did not say, 'This part is derogatory,' or anything like that.

I suspect that that really didn't need pointing out! But we're in a litigation hair-trigger climate where a bag of peanuts has a notice saying This product contains nuts.

The facts, needless to say, aren't clear: I get the feeling [2] that the complainants' children may have identified the book as a potential source of difficulty for the teacher before the incidents took place. Just a hunch.

The Vero Beach High's Principal, one Daniel Noel, immediately assumed the fetal position ,it seems: he
pulled the book from classrooms immediately following the challenge so teachers and administrators at the school could discuss their options. Noel said he organized several meetings with staff members and brought in members of the local NAACP chapter to hear their views.

"They made some recommendations about being sensitive that were very helpful," Noel said. "Sometimes you just need a refresher."

Not exactly a Pol Pot re-education camp - but a strategy all about liability minimisation, and ass-covering generally. The hanging chad experience was no doubt a salutary one throughout the Florida public service.

After thus making kow-tow,
After deciding the book was a factual history of Florida and appropriate for high school students, Noel allowed the book back into the 11th-grade American literature classes several days later

The very use of the expression factual history
  1. about a novel; or, indeed

  2. at all
I find one of the most disturbing aspects of the case.

The rest of the Post piece shows a little common sense amongst other education officials in the region. I get the feeling that the school board will follow its panel recommendations and leave the book in the classrooms.

Panic over, then. Except that the educative value of the incident would tend towards defensive teaching. The system is a dynamic one: students can be expected to be pro-active in seeking opportunities to shake the tree again - if only for the pleasure of seeing the principal jump Jim Crow once more (these are high school students, after all!). In the oneupmanship game between teacher and student, it's an edge for the students. (Or some of them: where were the white kids when all this was going on?)

And on the Harper Lee classic: a quick skim up to the end of Chapter 12 comes to 21 mentions of nigger, several as nigger-lover. To Kill A Mockingbird is more junior high, I suspect. But I still wonder how - especially given the white viewpoint, white hero, and other horribly insensitive features of the book - it manages to get taught in American schools these days.

Oh - and while we're talking sensitivity, Vero Beach is located in Indian River County. Put that in your peace-pipe and smoke it!

  1. The AP link in the Tongue Tied piece is kaput - the Palm Beach Post (November 29) takes the story on a good deal. It also mentions the word itself: no asterisks or dashes, no n-word nonsense, just the actual word. Why does that come off as a major victory for free speech, I wonder?

  2. The Post piece says that
    Maria and DeMario first complained to their fathers about the novel in mid-September.
    They were complaining about the book, not the incidents in class, it seems.

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