Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is a middle-class community across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. A suburb that was nearly all white in the early 1980s, 20 percent of its population is now African American, Latino, or Asian. Cherry Hill, like many communities, has had to grapple with issues of how to integrate different cultures, and how to raise consciousness about the perspectives of minorities in a place where, until recently, so-called minority issues were only something to read about in the newspaper.
In 1995, several African American high school students in Cherry Hill complained to their parents about having to read Huck Finn in class. Before assigning it, some teachers had not mentioned that the book was controversial, nor had they noted the more than two hundred instances of the word "nigger" in the novel. As a result, according to one of the students, no one was prepared for the power of the word in class. White students would nervously "snicker" or "turn around and stare" at the handful of African American students when the word was read aloud.
The African American students felt too ashamed to speak up or ask their teachers for help; instead, they simply stopped reading or attending class. Their parents, long frustrated with the lack of multicultural content in the district's curricula, initially tried to solve the problem by working with the school on a newly established Multicultural Task Force. As part of this effort, a team of experts in history and literature from nearby Villanova University, assembled by Professor Maghan Keita and including Professors Larry Little and Crystal Lucky, were invited to conduct a workshop on Huck Finn for the teachers at Cherry Hill. But by the end of the 1995-96 school year, the parents still felt that not enough had been done to correct the problem. If nothing more changed, one parent recalls, "we knew we'd have a firestorm on our hands."
In November 1996, a group of parents from the Cherry Hill Minority Civic Association (CHMCA) presented a formal "Citizen's Request for Reconsideration of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to the Board of Education, claiming that "the prejudicial effect of the racial characterizations outweigh any literary value that the book might have." The Board of Education, acting on its policy to respond within thirty days, established a committee to review the complaint, chaired by Richard Levy, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, and including administrators, teachers, and board members. One of the committee's most important recommendations, says Levy, was that all parties sit down for a "frank dialogue."
But on the night in 1996 when parents and teachers first came together, neither side believed they'd ever find common ground. "The group of us and the teachers sat across from each other, diametrically opposed, and there was so much tension you could cut it with a knife," remembers Pat McCargo, corresponding secretary of the CHMCA. Concerned about academic freedom, many teachers declared that they would never teach a book primarily as a "tool for political purposes" rather than as literature. If parents were allowed to dictate how to teach this book -- or whether or not to teach it at all -- the teachers asked, where would they draw the line? But as the parents rose to speak and told the teachers what their children hadn't been able to say in class -- that reading Huck Finn made them feel conspicuous and ashamed -- "we could actually see the teachers putting themselves in the kids' shoes," said one father. "What we found wasn't so much racism as misunderstanding," says Bill McCargo, president of the CHMCA. "At long last they finally understood."
For all the groups, the most important thing to come out of this meeting was an understanding that no one wanted to ban the book. "I got the feeling that people were saying instead, we want a solution," says teacher Sandy Forchion. "If we ban books, all we're doing is shoving the problem below the surface, and it's always going to be there," agrees Bill McCargo. There was also consensus that student learning was the first priority -- beyond the philosophical questions of censorship and intellectual freedom. As parent Danny Elmore commented at the time, "If [students] shut down we haven't done anything."
The process of negotiating a curriculum everyone could agree on took over a year, and during that time Huck Finn was taken out of the classroom. In the end, it was decided that not only would the curriculum be rewritten, but all Cherry Hill teachers wishing to teach the novel in the future would be required to attend a one-day workshop given by the Villanova professors. At the workshop and within the new curriculum, teachers would be given the historical, cultural, and literary resources to see the novel in a new light.
On the night the committee presented its final report to the Board of Education, television cameras came from stations all over southern New Jersey. "They were expecting a big fight," recalls Levy. "What they found instead was a solution to a very challenging problem."
While not all teachers in Cherry Hill have signed on for the workshop (and thus have chosen not to teach the book), most people feel that the new curriculum is both rich and balanced. Although it is only in its first year of classroom use and is, teachers emphasize, a work "in progress," the curriculum seems already to have changed how students see not just Huck Finn, but issues of race in general. "Racism was always part of the conversation [throughout the new curriculum]," says one eleventh grader, "[and] until this unit I didn't really realize how much racism continues today."
Everyone at Cherry Hill agrees that the controversy brought their community together. The strengthened relationship between the minority community and the schools is "one of the best things that came out of this," says the same parent who worried at first that there would be a "firestorm."
"When I look back at my career, this is right up at the top," says Levy. "We worked through the controversy and came to a resolution that's a win-win for everyone."
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