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Brave New World: Why We Need ‘Offensive’ Books

December 5, 2010
by

SAVAGE

c.1300, “wild, undomesticated, untamed” (of animals and places), from O.Fr. sauvage, salvage “wild, savage, untamed,” from L.L. salvaticus, alteration of silvaticus”wild,” lit. “of the woods,” from silva “forest, grove.” Of persons, the meaning “reckless, ungovernable” is attested from c.1400, earlier in sense “indomitable, valiant” (c.1300). Implications of ferocity are attested from 1570s, earlier of animals (c.1400). The noun meaning “wild person” is from 1580s; the verb meaning “to tear with the teeth, maul” is from 1880.

Editor’s note: I’ve gotten many emails about this most recent article, (a version of which appears in Real Change) all of which have cursed me, insulted me, accused me of cultural insensitivity and/or being a racist.

Sarah Sense-Wilson just wants to do what she thinks is right for kids like her daughter. That’s why she’s petitioning Seattle Public Schools to ban the book “Brave New World” from its approved reading list.

Sense-Wilson, who is Native American, is upset that her daughter, a high school student, was required to read the controversial work, based on its repeated use of the world “savage”, a historically derogatory term used to refer to Native Americans.

I understand her concern over the word and what it invokes. But just like I’ve defended The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in spite of- or perhaps because of its use of the word ‘nigger’, Brave New World is just as important; it has social, academic and literary value.

Sarah Sense-Wilson says the book is bad because it could make Native kids feel bad when reading it because it gives such a negative depiction of a specific group of people. She also says the kids she’s talked to don’t really care for the book, so why should they have to read it at all?

Unfortunately, those aren’t valid reasons to ban a book. Kids don’t have to like the book to need to read it, and neither do their parents.  That the book makes anyone uncomfortable, regardless of cultural heritage is exactly why it’s an important read. When taught correctly it’s an opportunity.

This isn’t about feelings. This is about teaching kids.  Far too often we minorities arrest our own process simply because we don’t like to experience discomfort or be faced with our own racial baggage.

It’s not okay to demand that no child be required to read Brave New World or have access to it at the school library.

I shared my position last week in Seattle’s Real Change newspaper, and I’ve gotten plenty of emails accusing me of everything from racism to cultural insensitivity to downright stupidity for my perspective.  I’ve been told I just “don’t get it.”

My own Native heritage not withstanding, I get it. I know what it’s like to be the only brown face in a classroom when controversial books are read and discussed.  I know what it’s like to face stereotypes and ignorance about who I am and the people I come from.  I also know what it’s like to want to protect your kids from the bad stuff in the world.

But whether it makes me uncomfortable as a mom or not, books like Huck Finn and Brave New World are platforms to deconstruct and better comprehend the false dichotomy of racial, intellectual superiority and inferiority.

Leave the book on the school library shelves. The concept of the savage is not exclusively a Native American burden; it’s a burden for us all to carry. None of us should run from it or try and deny it simply because it causes pain.

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. Although the novel is set in the future, it contains parallels to contemporary and controversial issues of the early 20th century.  Why is that? Could it be because of the potential to repeat the atrocities of the past right now in the future?

Original article:

Sarah Sense-Wilson just wants to do what is right for kids like her daughter. That’s why she’s petitioning Seattle Public Schools to ban the book “Brave New World” from its approved reading list.

Sense-Wilson, who is Native American, is upset that her daughter, a high school student, was required to read the controversial work, based on its repeated use of the world “savage” to refer to Native Americans.

I understand her concern over this derogatory, painful word and what it invokes. Yes, the word is loaded. But there is no word in the English language, no matter how offensive, that we should refuse to expose ourselves to in any context because doing so would undermine our collective responsibility to our history as a country.

It’s not uncommon for parents to object to specific literature because of racially derogative language. Take Huck Finn and the n-word; the book is so controversial and “offensive” it’s banned by school districts here and across the country.

Over the years I’ve heard all the excuses and rationales for why Huck Finn should be banned including accusations the author was an unapologetic racist who hated Black people, which isn’t true, by the way.

Folks say the book relied unnecessarily on racial stereotypes and glorified a Southern antebellum society well out of date at the time it was published. For most, the book’s biggest crime is that it uses the n-word. Often. Some have even argued reading the book is a traumatizing and degrading experience for Black students.

In banning Huck Finn because of the n-word, we lose, not just an opportunity to discuss and understand the social construct of racism in American society, but we deny ourselves and our kids the essential opportunity to study one of the best, or at least one of the most controversial works of American literature we’ve ever had.

When taught appropriately, books like Huck Finn and Brave New World are platforms to discuss and better understand the fallible concept of racial, intellectual superiority. It cuts to the original intention of the mere idea of the forced identity known as the nigger or the savage, and the equally false concept of White superiority.

It is a crime to refuse reading these books and experiencing these ultimate, teachable moments — because of the use of a single word.
Leave Brave New World on the school library shelves. The concept of the savage is not exclusively a Native American burden; it’s a burden for us all to carry. None of us should run from it or try and deny it simply because it causes pain.

When we distance ourselves from the hurtful aspects of history, we condemn ourselves to experience them again.

cover art by *Meifu

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One Comment leave one →
  1. kelly permalink
    January 12, 2011 5:51 am

    I guess they should ban homework as well. I mean, since so many kids don’t care for it.

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