Readers Throw Down on Great American Novels, Nickelodeon

A round-up of some of this week's best reader-lead conversations.

By Channing Kennedy Jan 08, 2011

Happy belated New Year! Over the holidays, our most-commented-on post by far was Terry Keleher’s essay on being a white man taking a race-conscious approach to raising his black adopted son. It sparked a lot of great conversation (and interesting disagreements!) on this site and elsewhere; Terry’s rounded up the best of those conversations for a new post. Go check it out; his thoughtful, long-form answers are instructive in more ways than one.

Of course, hot comment threads aren’t hard to come by on Want to get involved? Hit the reply button and start typing — on this site, or at Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Youtube.

Last week, Kai turned a scholar’s cleaned-up version of Huckleberry Finn into a teachable moment about our ‘abstinence only’-style conversation about American racism. Kai also shouts out a comment by reader Tim Jones-Yelvington, who looks at the book outside of its ‘classic’ status and proposes a real lesson plan:

In addition to some caricature issues w/ Jim’s character, the book revolves around a white person’s epiphany. That epiphany is limited — from what I can remember, it’s more abt Jim’s exceptionalism (the Uncle Tom thing) than a broader realization about systemic injustice, and it doesn’t question or seek to transform the underlying logic that structures racism (Jim is "white on the inside"). But I don’t think any of that means it’s without "literary merit" (a term I actually kind of hate) or historical import.

I actually think it would be interesting to do a kind of critical whiteness studies-through literature course that teaches some of these limited or problematic texts abt race by white authors — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem — maybe Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingam Jail abt the problems of white liberal allies. And look not just at the texts themselves but also the various controversies around their reception at various points historically and currently.

James K says Twain’s use of the word is high-profile specifically because it’s merited:

Meantime, we can still read this word, in far less justifiable contexts, in such "classics" as Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, etc., etc. As with most "canonical" overreach, it’s abstinence-only education (superbly put, BTW!) with materials people pay attention to — otherwise, it’s business (read: n-word) as usual in countless texts.

And fractalsrock (great user name) says historical accuracy only takes our conversation so far:

The problem with using this book in classrooms is not the historically accurate use of the terms but with the fear and lack of skillsets most educators possess to engage the topics they represent: white privilege, racism, and oppression as roots of our country’s experience.

Moving from classic novels to classic Youtube videos, Jorge had some good news for us last week — Ted Williams, the "homeless man with a golden voice," found a job and a new lease on life through the power of the internet. Commenter Heath points out, as does Jorge, that one job offer does not a joblessness crisis end:

Agreed, this is a great story. But I wish stories like these would also devote attention to the systemic causes of homelessness (such as the lack of a social safety net, lack of mental health services, lack of jobs, etc.) that are often responsible for why people end up out on the street. But perhaps that’s asking too much of a mainstream media outlet like CBS.

And Steve Grimes puts it even more succinctly:

Sucks for all the squeaky voice homeless individuals out there I guess…

Jorge also took a break from watching the new Oprah network to report on Nickelodeon’s efforts to include diversity in their shows — what they’ve gotten right, and what they’re still working on. As jujube put it,

I think that diversity in casting on Nickelodeon is a good thing, HOWEVER it seems like they do two things in the shows: 1) They almost always pair up non-white children with white children in friendships, as if a nonwhite child is only worth watching on TV if he/she has a bunch of white friends. 2) They show schools and neighborhoods that are almost invariably racially mixed, which causes children to believe that segregation in schooling and housing is not still a major problem.