Today, I’d like to look at racism in young adult fiction. At least one or two books make the American Library Association’s most challenged list because they contain racial discrimination. Personally, I think that this stand is counterproductive. Often young adult fiction contains racism to illustrate the lesson that bigotry is ugly, as in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. Sometimes, like Laura Ingalls’ LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRARIE, it’s represented in a historical way. Whether it’s included to teach a lesson or just to keep a historical era authentic, I believe it’s a mistake to shield the young from images of racism.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a coming of age story about a girl named Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama in the 1960’s. The climax of this book is a trial in which their father, Atticus, defends a black man against accusations that he raped a white woman. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN is the story of a boy who runs away from his abusive father. As he flees, he meets up with a runaway slave named Jim who is trying to get to Ohio to buy his freedom. As Jim looks after Huck, Huck realizes that the black man isn’t property, despite what society tells him. When Huck must make the choice between revealing Jim as a runaway slave, or helping him continue to Ohio and face the threat of hell for stealing another person’s property, he says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
One of the leading objections to both of these books is the liberal use of the word “nigger”. I hate this word. In my opinion, there are only a couple of others that rank as hateful. However, I believe that we, adults and young adults alike, need to have open, adult discussions about when using the word “nigger” is and isn’t appropriate. When it’s used in a historical context to demonstrate how it was used to hurt and belittle, I believe it serves a worthy purpose. If it’s used to shock and make writing edgy, it becomes the same as swearing in young adult. Maybe even worse.
LITTLE TOWN ON THE PRAIRIE gets the racism nod, and has been challenged and banned in a few places because Pa Ingalls takes part in a black face minstrel show. It’s presented as entertainment, the same as a spelling bee and a musical concert. It’s worth mentioning that an earlier book in the series, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE has one black character who is a doctor. This doctor saves the family from malaria. So, in this context, I believe the minstrel show just illustrates the culture at the time (in the 1880’s in the Midwest). While, yes, it is racist, it’s also an opportunity for how cultural awareness has changed in the last 130 years.
Here’s something that I found interesting: all of the book challenges from racism that I found were racism around African-American culture. It’s not like racism against other groups doesn’t exist in young adult literature. There’s a nice little collection of Holocaust literature for young adults, including ANNE FRANK: DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL. Holocaust literature is, by it’s very nature, about racism. And while ANNE FRANK had been challenged, it was for sexual content and homosexual reference. Also, while the LITTLE HOUSE series has the one example of racism against blacks, there are multiple examples of racism against Native Americans. Ma Ingalls even says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” during their stay in Indian Territory.
So, I want to leave this discussion with the question: why wouldn’t we want to expose young adults to examples of racism? Why does it seem that only representation of racism against African Americans is challenged? I personally would have no trouble including racism in a book I wrote. How about you?