Sunday, May 13, 2007

Local School Book Banning

Image and video hosting by TinyPicI will normally refrain from getting too specific on political issues in this blog (not because I think political concerns are inconsistent with spiritual ones--on the contrary, I think the distinction between the two is a modern quirk, and perhaps not an especially helpful one--but more on this in a later post). On this occasion, however, I find myself giving into the urge to be very goddamn specific, because this issue touches me personally in a number of ways.

First of all, the article: "School Board Pulls Books", which is about the high school I attended, in the town where I was born and spent my whole childhood, banning two books--Maya Angelou's autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams.

I am feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment, so please forgive me if my thoughts are a little scattered. Yes, it is a temporary ban, and the books will be returned to the syllabus after a public forum is held, during which teachers and the school board will have a chance to explain the merits (there are many) of each book. Still, this hits very close to home for me.

I grew up in this town. I was a child--a young woman--in this community, and furthermore, I was a driven and intelligent young woman. I know the Mr. Adams mentioned in the article (and I have to say, my opinion of him after reading this is lower than ever). It has been only just over ten years since I was a high school freshman (before these two books were introduced into the curriculum), but I still feel stung, as if it is my library and my liberty being threatened.

There are a number of issues that make me flinch. First, both of these books were written by women, who already have such scant representation in the average high school curriculum across the U.S. Speaking as a young woman myself who, as a little girl, longed to be a writer with every bone in my body and wrote thousands (yes, thousands) of pages of journals, poetry and short stories (which, sentimental as I am, I still have pack in several large boxes in the back of a closet in my parents' house)... well, you can understand why it is discouraging and painful to find the works of women I so admired and looked up to as a young writer being banned for the very reasons I loved them so much. Maya Angelou, furthermore, also represents a minority within a minority--I seem to recall a college professor of mine, also a black woman poet, talking about how amidst all the righteousness of the "black man's struggle" against racism and oppression, little is said about the struggles of the black woman. These are voices that need to be heard--strong, intelligent, articulate women writing about the complex and sometimes harsh realities from the underbelly of this culture, and about the alternatives.

Also, the reasons for the book ban are weak and small-minded, at best. While Mr. Adams apparently thinks Native American spirituality, ecology, and balanced political knowledge of the American government's less seemly dealings are "extreme views," parents themselves are apparently more concerned about the sexual content of these two texts.

Singer said concerns about "Caged Bird" came to light in the fall, when a parent read aloud at a school board meeting a passage that described Angelou's rape.

"I was embarrassed by it," he said. "Sitting at a public meeting, I was just thinking to myself, man, I wish this wasn't going on right now."
You were embarrassed, sir? Embarrassed? So I suppose young people shouldn't read books which challenge them, force them to confront difficult issues or cause them any discomfort? I suppose young men should not have to read passages about the painful details and emotional trauma that sexual abuse causes, and young women should be reintroduced to the idea that it is "embarrassing" and taboo to be honest about sexuality and sexism? I suppose young people's only examples of dealing with such serious topics should be the movies, television shows, music videos and video games which treat sex as a consumer product at best (and a bad misogynistic joke at worst), and all mature or psychologically complex treatments of such topics should be stricken, for fear that they might give students (*gasp*) some perspective?

Slow down, Ali, you're ranting.

My first reaction is to demand, "What the hell?! Is school now about pleasing the P.C. parents, who have grown to be better censors of their children's thoughts and better obstacles to their children's maturation than the government could have ever dreamed of being?" (When we censor ourselves, who needs a Big Brother--or, as Ani sings it, "The freedom of the press is meaningless if nobody ever asks a question. I mean, causation by definition is such a complex compilation of factors that to even try to say why is to oversimplify, but that's a far cry, isn't it dear? from acting like you're the only one here...")

My cynical self responds, "Now, Ali, remember--you were reading the unabridged version of Hugo's Les Miserables when you were in sixth grade, before you'd even learned about the French Revolution in history class, before you knew how to pronounce the word 'whore' and had to ask your mother what it meant while sitting on the sidelines at your brother's soccer game--though that didn't stop you from realizing that 'whore' meant degradation, disease, starvation and grief. Kids these days are growing up thinking 'bitches an' hoes' are just collective nouns for the young, sexy women draped across the latest rapstar's shoulders like a fashionable dead animal fur. And remember, Ali--public education was always about making good citizens. And while that used to mean educated citizens capable of reasoned decision making for the good of the community, it now means people comfortable with the status quo, it means assimilation into consumerism. And just because you grew up on Star Trek, thinking 'assimilation' was something the Borg did that must be resisted, even if it was futile, not everyone was a nerd. Not everyone is afraid of machine enhanced bodies and skin pale from long hours 'plugged in' to the mainframe."

Ah, cynical self.... I know what breaks you down, I know what you and I agree on.

It is that climactic scene in the movie, Magnolia (which was as heart-wrenching as it was dull--that is to say, very), as the frogs fall with rain from the sky and the little boy looks up from his encyclopedia to say, "This happens. This is something that happens." Confusion, embarrassment, uncertainty, struggle, racism, sexism, sexuality, growth, questioning, what these books are about--these are things that happen.

And that, friends, is the point. It is important--perhaps the most important, the most vital thing of all--that young people have a chance to feel that recognition, that connection, to find themselves suddenly in touch with something that reminds them that they, too, are part of the human condition. That others have gone through it, have overcome it, have become stronger for it. Without that connection to the struggles and sufferings and confusing, sometimes painful but often joyful complexities of the rest of humanity, what are we raising but a generation of isolated and ignorant consumer-drones who never want to grow old or fall in love?


  1. As a college teacher, it seems completely absurd for any books to be banned given the wide availability of both pornography and explicit violence on the internet and cable television. We should all be encouraging one another to read more books of any sort. I actually fear that libraries of printed books may be disappearing within only a few generations in any case unless we are vigilant in preserving them and pressuring one another to make use of them.

  2. I agree, I can't conceive of any reason why a book should ever be banned. I'm a strong advocate of reading widely, even things you don't agree with, and approaching everything with an analytical eye. Book-banning, imho, seems entirely against the whole idea of a free and open society.

    Actually, I think book-banning and pornography have something in common: the fetishizing of certain behaviors and ideas, until they are warped out of all perspective and divorced from the natural fabric of community and balanced reality. Pornography revels in fetish in the name of sexual pleasure; book-banning finds its justification in the assumption that certain subjects are automatically fetishes and cannot be approached in a balanced or reasonable way that encourages maturity and growth. In fact, book-banning might be worse than porn, since at least porn does not make any implicit statements about the possibility that sex and sexuality can also be loving and respectful.

    So, yes, I just compared book-banning unfavorably to pornography. That will probably give the book-banners something to squirm about. My work here is done. ;)

  3. O, P.S. Speaking of libraries--I am an obsessive book collector, though my tendencies have only begun to manifest in the past few years, now that I have an independent source of income (which I quickly squander on several books a month--it's possible I spend more money on books than on food!). I think I secretly dream of one day having a private collection to rival any public library's, just in case our society loses its collective mind and lets the public library system fail.

    So there's that.

  4. I see that I spurred you to some further thoughts, all of which I agree with. I do believe that pornography has both good and bad aspects. Banning and censorship often make a product even more desirable.