Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ban The Books Or Those Who Do The Banning?

There are times, in this wondrous world of blogging, truly strange things happen.

Back in November I wrote a post on a conflict over a book that was proposed to be banned in the Coeur d'Alene School District, Huxley's Brave New World, and how it parallelled the reality of today.

Last month I received an e-mail from a member of the National Coalition Against Censorship thanking me for that post and encouraging me to continue blogging about similar happenings. The very same day a letter-to-the-editor appeared in the Coeur d'Alene Press from a member of the "Novel Ad Hoc Committee for the Coeur d'Alene School District" stating her reasons for not approving several books given for review. To sum it up, the letter ended saying, "No folks, it's not censoring. IT'S CALLED PARENTING".

She used a statement taken from Wikipedia quoting in part from the Coalitions own web site telling of books that had been banned and why.

On one book she asked an acquaintance his opinion. He read a few pages and dissed it as did she on that basis. She chose a second book and decided to check it out on the web. Wikipedia. That's where she found the Coalition's remarks. I doubt she ever visited their site. Okay. I was appalled. Refuse a book not read by comments on Wikipedia and call it parenting.

The book? Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I had not read it either so I went to the library and checked it out.

Here is what Wikipedia and the Coalition said, according to her letter:
...parents and schools have objected to "Caged Bird's" depiction of lesbianism, premarital cohabitation, pornography and violence. Some have been critical of the book's sexually explicit scenes, use of language and religious depiction.
Wow, I thought, I'm in for quite a read. Until I started. It is the autobiographical recollections of Maya Angelou from the time she was three years old when she and her four year old brother were shipped from Long Beach, CA to Stamps, Arkansas to be raised by their Grandmother.

It is a grueling and beautifully written recollection of what life was like during the depression years in the black community of a small southern town. The hardships, the pecking order, the brutal prejudices and the killings that sometimes resulted. It takes you with her for a stay with her mother in St. Louis where she was first fondled sexually and finally raped by her mother's boyfriend. He was later found kicked to death.

This is how life was. This is how her life was. It goes on. She and her brother return to Sparks for a time and finish their schooling. Both were avid readers, reading books far more advanced in their childhood years than most of our high schoolers read today. Poe. Shakespeare.

After her graduation from 8th grade the children return to California. She spent some time with her father who turned out to be a womanizing drunk, ran away and lived for a month with a group of runaways. They had more sense of community than most adults. They pooled what money they had for the benefit of the entire group and kept the sexes segregated.

Back with her mother she continues her education and as any girl in her early teens would do, searched for her self. After having read The Well of Loneliness, a book written in the late 20s, a depiction of lesbians searching for acceptance, and being less developed than her peers she began to wonder if something was wrong with her. She had the misconception that lesbians might be hermaphrodites and that she too might be one especially having seen a friend, more fully developed than she, naked and was fascinated.

To cement her "womanhood", in her mind, she offered herself to a neighbor boy and ended up pregnant. Now here is where actual parenting actually came into play! She was asked if he wanted to marry her. No. Did she want to marry him? No. Good. Two lives not ruined. She kept the baby. The book ended at that point of time in her life. She was 16, maybe 17.

Nothing in the book was salacious, nor the least bit titillating. It was how the girl, as she grew, saw her life and that around her. I found nothing approaching pornography, no graphic depictions of violence, no overt lesbianism. Premarital cohabitation was the way it was as was the religious depiction. Today's movies, television and the public beach have far more graphic depictions and foul language than anything in this book.

There is nothing in the book that today's teen would find shocking. What they will find is how blacks were thought of and treated in historical and geographical context during the Depression and on into the War.

That a person chosen to review a book chooses not to read the book, to make a judgements from an ill conceived write up on Wikipedia and in that misuse a Coalition that fights censorship is beyond my comprehension.

One can only wonder how this Ad Hoc Committee is chosen. This is not parenting. This is an abrogation of responsibility.


Jamie said...

Thanks for a strong statement in support of free expression and the right to read! Currently, we here at the National Coalition against Censorship are covering book challenges and bans at the Leesburg Public Library in Florida ( and Litchfield, New Hampshire (

Word Tosser said...

a member of the "Novel Ad Hoc Committee for the Coeur d'Alene School District"? Where does that say parent... it sounds like a group of people making decisions for ALL PARENTS. So that does not make it parenting... it is censorship in sheeps clothing.

and using Wikipedia for their source of reference... good grief.. any one can put whatever they want up there... anyone..

judging a book so to speak by its cover(a person review)for crying out loud, without even reading it.. it is like the churches condemning a movie when no one has see the movie...
What self righteous people.

Hannah said...

By reading the book and putting the "offensive" material in context, you really show how prejudiced all censorship inherently is. The parent who wrote that letter didn't want to make the jump between reading a laundry list of "red-flag" topics and actually understanding the novel as literature.

Even if teens do find the book shocking, that's no reason for them not to read it--most eye-opening, mind-expanding books are a little bit shocking.

Thanks for this post!

Sansego said...

I read that book in 1993 after I was impressed with Maya Angelou's inaugural poem "On the Pulse of Morning." I had never heard of her and wanted to know more about her. This classic of hers is heartbreaking, but very enlightening. I can't imagine anyone reading it and not coming away with a greater understanding or sense of compassion for those who grew up in poverty or of a maligned minority group.

Conservatives who ban books are just afraid of people reading things to get ideas to try for themselves. Yet, throughout history, banning a book only makes people MORE CURIOUS to read the book. Duh! It's probably every author's dream to have some self-righteous, easily offended religious freak lead a crusade to ban his or her book. Guaranteed publicity!

Friko said...

I am quite sure you have heard a particular comment quoted before but I'll just repeat it here:

"Yes, but would you want either your wife or your servants reading this book?" The book in question was, of course, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book now taught at English schools at advanced level exams.

We are lucky we no longer have to witness book burnings in the West; there will always be bigots who cannot see the wood for the trees and who follow blindly the opinions of others like them.

Margie's Musings said...

Good for you for exposing this banning. No one has the right to tell what we can and cannot read. That's what free agency is all about.

Harlax said...

Powerful post. As an avid writer and reader, I find Maya Angekou's work touching and inspiring. The fact that someone would use another's erroneous critique to judge a book they had not read is appalling and only shines light on the fact that they shouldn't be allowed to make such decisions.