Saturday, January 08, 2011


I have mixed feelings about this, as reported in today's New York Times:

TUCSON -- The class began with a Mayan-inspired chant and a vigorous round of coordinated hand clapping. The classroom walls featured protest signs, including one that said "United Together in La Lucha!" -- the struggle. Although open to any student at Tucson High Magnet School, nearly all of those attending Curtis Acosta's Latino literature class on a recent morning were Mexican-American.

For all of that and more, Mr. Acosta's class and others in the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American program have been declared illegal by the State of Arizona -- even while similar programs for black, Asian and American Indian students have been left untouched.

"It's propagandizing and brainwashing that's going on there," Tom Horne, Arizona's newly elected attorney general, said this week as he officially declared the program in violation of a state law that went into effect on Jan. 1....

But one aspect of the class that has Arizona upset doesn't seem completely out of line:

John Huppenthal, a former state senator who took over as Arizona's schools chief, said he supported Mr. Horne's 11th-hour ruling. Mr. Huppenthal sat in on one of the Tucson classes taught by Mr. Acosta, and said that Benjamin Franklin was vilified as a racist....

Ben Franklin? Racist? Well, you could say that. As Eric Foner noted a couple of months ago in a Harper's review of a book on race:

Benjamin Franklin suggested in 1751 that since the number of "purely white people" in the world was "very small," America ought to exclude "all Blacks and Tawneys," among whom he included not only residents of Africa and Asia but also the "swarthy" peoples of Europe -- "the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes."

(Foner adds, archly: "Franklin's inclusion of Swedes among non-whites strikes us today as an original touch." Indeed.)

As an Italian-American, and therefore a "Tawney," I'm not wild about what Franklin said. Yeah, I think "racist" is a not inaccurate way to describe it.

And yet I'm not inclined to dismiss Franklin out of hand. Go read the Times article and you do get the sense that the class in question sees everything in, er, black and white. I'm more inclined to say that we should accept for what they are the good and bad in the words and deeds of Franklin -- and, now that you mention it, the Framers of the Constitution. (I'll throw Mark Twain in there, too.)

Elsewhere in the Times, I see that Adam Kirsch of The New Republic has an op-ed decrying the new bowdlerized text of Huck Finn and, this week, the bowdlerization of the Constitution by House Republicans. (Has Kirsch been reading this blog?) I don't fully agree with Kirsch, however, when he writes this about Huck Finn:

Yet all those racial epithets are a reminder that, when Twain wrote it, the audience he had in mind -- the America for which he wrote -- was segregated. He did not worry about constantly writing "nigger," because he was writing about blacks, not for them. And for many readers, encountering classic literature means sometimes finding yourself excluded, or insulted, in this way. For blacks reading Twain, certainly, but also for Jews reading Shakespeare or Dickens, and for women reading, say, Plato (among countless others).

But the books we cherish, which deserve the name of classics, feel essentially humane to us, despite their limitations, even their bigotry.... We feel that the exclusion of whole classes of humanity from the author's imagined audience -- which means, from his idea of the fully human -- is due to ignorance or carelessness; that if he were to think and feel more freely, more deeply, he would acknowledge that all people are equally human.

I don't think it's a question of authors "think[ing] and feel[ing] more freely, more deeply" -- it's that they're who they are, as individuals and as products of their time. They're not capable of omniscience because, well, they're just people. Damning Franklin as nothing more than a racist strikes me as the flip side of pretending that the Consttution never contained words institutionalizing slavery -- it's arguing that people are either godlike or demonic, all good or all evil. The same thing happens when you say that an unbowdlerized Huck Finn either makes some contemporary readers feel pain or is a great work -- as if both can't be true.

We're not gods or devils. We're human. This is how we do what we do.

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