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Cussing and Critical Interpretation

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 24, 2006

Every parent has a right (nay a responsibility) to monitor what his or her child reads and to comment upon its appropriateness or non-appropriateness. It follows that the Ministry of Education has to assume the responsibility for the materials that are taught in our schools rather than pass the blame on to "professional experts" who have been selected to choose the materials. Apart from the desire to expunge "literary material that is unsavory" to our children, the Ministry of Education must offer a better explanation of what literary material is selected and why.

The recent objection to the use of Ian McDonald's The Humming-Bird Tree in our schools offers an important opportunity to examine why certain books are selected for our students' literary education. Since the novel was selected for students taking the CXC examination I presume that the young people to whom the objectionable material has been exposed are between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. The Ministry responds that our students should be exposed to "a wide range of West Indian literature which reflects the experiences of our people and contributes to the Caribbean psyche." Even as our students are exposed to a variety of experiences they must also be exposed to a variety of languages (be they formal, informal or obscene) through which they and others express themselves.

William Empson, a famous English poet and critic, has argued that "The main purpose of reading imaginative literature is to grasp a wide variety of experience, imagining people with codes and customs very unlike our own." At the national level-that is, as a part of our national agenda-the study of literature should be used to inculcate a sense of national identity and expose our students to issues of politics, society, aesthetics, etc., so as to develop a critical faculty as the literatures of European and America have done for their people.

In this context, the use of a couple cuss words should be the least of our concerns. If one accepts that a curriculum should engender critical self-learning and develop critical intelligence then a few cuss words should not be a problem to our students. One does not expect a young adult who is taking a CXC examination in literature to be devoid of that critical faculty that allows him to evaluate language, meaning and its implications. In fact, one of the most important jobs of a teacher is to develop that critical intelligence upon which our democracy depends. How, in heaven's name, can we expect a young person to discern the double speak of contemporary politicians if she or he cannot discern how another young person deals with his or her sexuality or make other decisions about his life.

No education can take place without an encounter with complex arguments and even dis-approving words. Nor for that matter can it fail to examine issues of children's sexuality and moral behavior. As a novel reveals its meanings through dialogue and discourse, the task of an author is to find the most appropriate language to express his character's thoughts and feelings. Although some cuss words may not be acceptable to parents, the world that our students encounter-the public sphere as Jurgen Habermas calls it-- is littered with cuss words, homophobic words and sexist words to which many of our young people will have to respond.

The Humming-Bird Tree is a story about three adolescents who confront questions of color, social and class differences although the novel ends unsatisfactorily. In the case of the white protagonist, he has to balance the demands of the black (colonial) and white (colonialist) worlds. The language of the novel is simple and uncomplicated. McDonald's description of the tropical landscape, his awareness of racial and class differences, the problems of poverty and want make for an important examination of issues that still scar our society today.

If our parents find of the text objectionable, they only have to pick up a Hip-Hop magazine, listen to an album of rap music or choice selections from reggae artists who spew forth their venom on homosexuals. In doing so, they may want to think of how to prevent our students from consuming the subliminal messages that are embedded in television commercials and Hip-Hop Videos that inundate them (and us) each day. It is the world that our students inhabit and as they seek each day to extract meaning out of that world.

Cultures are made in the specificity of their vernacular languages of which cuss words are a part. It is no good to say that we do not use cuss words in our daily lives even though all (or certainly most of us) have used them at some time or the other. The deeper question should revolve around how a study of our literature helps us to understand our national identity, how well it prepares our students for the issues psychic development and cultural awareness, and how racism, class oppression, and the quest for equity operate at particular historical moments.

One should not be distracted by a few cuss words in a text. One may quarrel with how well the author handled the issue of sexual desire and whether the dialogue of intimate encounters help us to understand the larger meaning of the text. As each adolescent comes to grips with his or her sexuality and other realities of life, a few cuss words here and there cannot be that harmful either to his or her morality or evolving sexuality.

The study of literature should prepare us to define our place in the world and reject notions that project whiteness as superior to blackness. It should also interrogate assumptions that tend to alienate many of us from realizing what can be termed "an authentic selfhood." Given the many social problems that face the nation, we should not be distracted by a few words which, in the scheme of things, cannot be the most important problems that our young people face.

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