Nationally syndicated columnist and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, Leonard Pitts, Jr., reminded us last fall when To Kill a Mockingbird was removed from a Mississippi school board because it "makes some people uncomfortable" that it is supposed to make people uncomfortable. I am certainly not suggesting that my debut YA-novel, Honeysuckle Holiday, could one day sit alongside the classic read on a library shelf (although one reviewer did compare it to that most prominent work), I am beginning to look closely at the "why" behind educators' choice to reconsider teaching Honeysuckle Holiday, not because of the book's merits, but because of a chant that is part of the story.
In 2014, as I sought literary representation for Honeysuckle Holiday, an agent remarked that the inclusion of the chant had no value and would only serve to "incite rebellion." My initial reaction was one of incredulity. My book? Incite rebellion? My book? No. No. Maybe. And a publisher who considered the work "suggested" that there be a disclosure of sorts at the beginning of the book to "cover us" should the chant create a problem with some readers. I refused both. What adds to the interest of this "concern" made its way into the delicate mix recently at the annual WV Writers Conference when a panel discussion on publishing touched on "sensitivity readers." Yes, they are real. And, publishers -- right or wrong -- hoping to avoid offending someone are turning to them. Their reasons are myriad and best left for another post, at another time. Would I employ the services of a sensitivity reader? Never. To blatantly include a racial chant in a work is one thing. To include a racial chant to show readers what this country and its people were inflicting on the Black race in America in the 1960s -- in the south of the 1960s -- is quite another. I believe it's called historical perspective, but that's a term no one wants to hear today. Instead, let's pretend "it" never happened.
Teachers throughout the Appalachian region WANT to teach Honeysuckle Holiday, but, not surprisingly, they are afraid to teach the book for fear that some people (not necessarily mind you their students as much as their parents) might be offended by the chant, might be just a tad bit "uncomfortable." And while I have provided in-depth teaching analyses and tools (after all, I taught American Literature at one of the best high schools in the state of WV for many years, not once shelving a work because it might "make some people uncomfortable") that incorporated the history of the time in which the story is placed, the teachers remained convinced that the trepidation -- the fear -- outweighs the potential rewards. And that's a shame. Not for my book, but for the students whose ignorance of that time period as it relates to its literary worth, will handicap them in reaching the full potential of what their involvement would have gifted. Again, it's a shame. It's a missed opportunity -- for all.
As Pitts pointed out in his commentary, the word "nigger" is "offensive and obnoxious." I might add that it's disgusting and degrading. But, I lived in the south in the 1960s. I heard the chant. I saw the reaction from my friends -- on both sides. And, it was real -- all of it. Pitts sums it up well: "In literature, as in protest, the audience’s discomfort is often a sign the message is being received. It can offer an invaluable opportunity to consider, reconsider, debate, teach, learn, reflect, and grow. Or it can be an excuse to run and hide." Read more here: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article179415026.html#storylink=cpy
So, if Honeysuckle Holiday "makes some people uncomfortable," then I'll take that as a good sign -- a hopeful sign.