Foul Language

Posted: November 4, 2014 in Education, Literature


I can’t wrap my head around literature that is banned in schools, but that’s just me. I mean, there is a line somewhere, but if you examine the list of commonly banned novels, the list is quite silly. For instance, The Great GatsbyThe Catcher in the Rye1984Lord of the Flies, and Of Mice and Men constantly find themselves in the top 10. Is it the love story of The Great Gatsby that upsets people? The violence in Lord of the Flies? The unceasing use of the n-word in Of Mice and Men? Surely we can all agree that Fifty Shades of Grey can be left off the curriculum…

When I read Lord of the Flies with my class (grade 10’s) – or have them read – we can make it through the majority of the novel without a hiccup. Unfortunately, Golding uses chapter 11 as a way of giving his reader unnecessary insight into the character of ‘Piggy.’ When Piggy is arguing with boys from a different tribe, he is trying to convince them that it’s better to be civil than uncivil if they want to survive and be rescued from their deserted island. He asks: “Which is better – to be a pack of painted niggers like you are or to be sensible like Ralph is?” (Golding, 199). Yikes. I always read through those lines with ease (always feeling internally uncomfortable), but students will always hesitate reading the word. Golding throws us a curve ball – it took us 11 of 12 chapters to realize that Piggy’s a racist? What I tell my students is that it signals Piggy’s downfall from a once-intelligent being to a marginalized and mentally-weak child. His racism comes through with his frustrations with the rest of the boys. The foul language here serves a purpose – though, arguably unnecessary.

The blatant racism in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men serves an obvious purpose too – it’s simply a commentary on the time period (1930’s). It doesn’t make the language any less uncomfortable, but Steinbeck is presenting a very real depiction of life during this time. I will go ahead and assume that Steinbeck wasn’t willing to hold back on the racism simply to ensure that his novel would be read with high levels of comfort… In fact, Curley’s wife threatens Crooks (only Black character in the novel) that she could have him “strung on a tree so easy…” It’s supposed to make the reader uneasy.

Sheltering these students from these words doesn’t help them, it hinders their understanding. Instead of teaching these students how the language conveys meaning, we simply allow them to miss out on the classic entirely – that’s a shame. Perhaps the worry is that students become desensitized to the language, but I’ll tell you from experience, reading Jim be referred to as “nigger Jim” throughout the majority of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn isn’t any less uncomfortable in the end than it is in the beginning…take my word for it.


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