Comfort vs. Enlightenment

“Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” —Pablo Picasso

I read an article recently about a California school district that banned several works of classic literature from its curriculum after parents complained that the books made their kids uncomfortable. All the banned books, which included Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, deal in some way with the ugly history of racism in America.

Among parents who filed complaints about the books was an African-American mother whose daughter had been subjected to racially charged taunts by a white student who said he was inspired to do so after reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This is, of course, completely unacceptable as well as a remarkably sad indicator of the backwards belief system that many white people in this country are still holding onto for dear life.

But while I understand this mother’s desire to protect her daughter and other students from further trauma, I would also argue that this incident is solid proof that these books need to be read and discussed.

After the books were banned, PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend free expression and promote literary culture, released a statement saying, in part, “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.”

You don’t need to be an English lit major to know that the point of these books is to make people uncomfortable. They are designed to make us think critically about our past and current beliefs and actions, the state of our society and culture, and what can and should be done to make the country we live in a better place for everyone who lives in it, now and in the future.

If we don’t understand the history of racism in America, we will never be able to have a productive discussion about the racism that exists here and now. Only once we are out our comfort zones are we are truly free to consider new ideas and other people’s points of view, and to examine what our own roles have been in perpetuating poisonous belief systems and ideas.

We as a society have gotten used to having the ability to selectively filter out news and information we don’t agree with, or that we find upsetting in some way. We are quick to vilify and criticize people who say and believe things that conflict with our own ideas. But art and literature can and should be a bridge that spans the raging river that divides us—a safe pathway that can lead to constructive discussion and practical solutions if we are only brave enough cross it.

The white student who made those racial taunts (and likely his parents) is responsible for his own actions. His morally reprehensible behavior was not the fault of the book he was reading. He used Mildred Taylor’s masterpiece as an excuse for behavior he likely would have exhibited anyway.

We need to ask ourselves: Do we want our young people to develop critical thinking skills that will enable them to become good citizens and work toward making our society a better, more tolerant and just place? Or are we OK with future generations of Americans shying away from the difficult tasks that must be tackled in order for us to live up to the ideals that America supposedly stands for?

Art holds a key to the truth. We need more of it, not less.