The Burbank Unified School District of Burbank, California instructed its teachers to suspend teaching five books pending a review after parents complained that the books inspire racism among students.
The school board made the decision to temporarily remove the books from its curriculum while they review challenges from a group of four parents (three of whom are black).
The announcement was made to the district’s middle and high school teachers in a virtual meeting on September 9th. The following books have been temporarily suspended from the curriculum:
- Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”
- Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
- John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice And Men”
- Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay”
- Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”
Four of the five authors were white. Mildred D. Taylor is a Newberry Award-winning African-American author.
The parents who have raised problems with the books cite concerns about the racial slurs in the books as well as the “white-savior story line” such as can be found in “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Carmenita Helligar is one of the parents challenging the inclusion of these books in school curriculum after her daughter, Destiny, was targeted by other students. Destiny told her mother that a student approached her and called her a racial slur that the student allegedly learned from “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
“My daughter was literally traumatized,” Helligar said. “These books are problematic…you feel helpless because you can’t even protect your child from the hurt that she’s going through.”
Another parent, Nadra Ostrom, said, “The portrayal of Black people is mostly from the white perspective. There’s no counter-narrative to this Black person dealing with racism and a white person saving them.”
“The education that students are basically getting is that racism is something in the past,” Ostrom continued. “And that’s not the conversation that we should be having in 2020. …Unless teachers have been specifically trained to teach these texts through an antiracist lens, they are probably reinforcing racism rather than dismantling it.”
Helligar agrees, saying that she “believes the core message being taught is that racism is an artifact of history.”
But many students as well as free speech advocates disagree, calling these books powerful stories that inspire students to think about America’s history with racism and its implications for the present.
Sophomore Sungjoo Yoon launched a petition on October 22nd to protest the banning of the books. As of November 11th, it’s been signed by over 2,600 people.
Around 80 students have personally written to the district in protest.
The Los Angeles Times tells the stories of many students who were positively impacted by reading books like “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”.
Both the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and PEN America have urged the district to continue teaching the books.
“(W)e believe that the books…have a great pedagogical value and should be retained in the curriculum,” wrote the NCAC.
“In a year when we have seen a national movement against systemic racial injustice,” wrote PEN, “it is crucial to bring these subjects into the classroom with care and sensitivity, which teachers are well-equipped to do. Blocking engagement with these important books is also avoiding the important role that schools can and should play in providing context for why these books inspire and challenge us still today.”
“We understand that this ban may have been proposed with good intentions,” PEN continued. “But banning books is not the answer.”