by Leslie Postal
A Seminole County family wants to restrict classroom use of an award-winning novel about black life because of its harsh depictions of racism and its use of racial slurs.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is widely used in Florida’s public schools and is required reading in some districts, including Orange and Seminole.
The book by Mildred D. Taylor depicts life in 1930s Mississippi. The narrator is a 9-year-old black girl who describes her ill-equipped, segregated school, her fury at being ignored and insulted by whites and her terror at watching "night men" attempt to lynch a black teenager.
Debra Drake’s son Thomas started reading the book in a seventh-grade class at Chiles Middle School near Oviedo.
On Tuesday, Drake will ask the Seminole County School Board to pull the book from county schools and make it available only with parental permission.
Drake, who is black, doesn’t like that the novel provides so many harsh details about black life during segregation or that the word "nigger" is used repeatedly. The novel is one she might want her son to read when he is older, but at home, with his parents able to help him understand it.
She said she doesn’t think a middle-school class is the appropriate place for such discussions because seventh-graders aren’t old enough to understand the material. Drake also worried that such discussions could exacerbate racial tensions at the school.
"Their maturity level can’t handle something of that nature," she said.
This is the first time the novel, or any other, has been challenged officially in Seminole, at least as far as any current administrators can remember.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry isn’t new to such controversies, however.
Nationwide, the book faces at least a few challenges every year, mostly from black parents who don’t like the language, said Beverley Becker, associate director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
In 2002, it even made the association’s Top 10 list of "Most Frequently Challenged Books," ranking No. 9.
The fact that Taylor is black "doesn’t make anybody feel any better," she said.
But to Becker, and many local educators, the book belongs in American schools so students learn that slice of their country’s history.
"I don’t think you can do that by sheltering them from the world as it was and is," Becker said.
The book, first published in 1976, is one of a series of books Taylor has written fictionalizing her own family’s experiences in the days before the civil rights movement. The novel won the Newbery Medal, the top prize in children’s literature, in 1977.
Chiles’ principal offered to let the Drakes’ son read another book, but the family wanted a countywide ban. Late last year, the Drakes took their case to a committee of district administrators, which decided the book should remain part of the curriculum. The Drakes are appealing that decision to the School Board.
School Board member Larry Furlong said he wouldn’t make a decision until Tuesday. But he read the book in preparation and found it well-written and appropriate for middle school. And, he said, it discussed racism in ways that would engage students more than textbooks.
"It put a face on it," he said.
Written comments from Chiles seventh-graders who read the novel bolstered administrators’ convictions about the book, said Ron Pinnell, the district administrator who oversees middle schools.
"I think the students’ comments are powerful," Pinnell said. "They convinced me that they got the message."
Students wrote that they liked the book because it was an exciting and dramatic story and also because it depicted a strong black family that didn’t give up. They also seemed to take away lessons on tolerance.
"I learned about the hardships that black people went through back then," one student wrote. "It really made me upset to see how they were treated."
But the parts of the book that 13-year-old Thomas Drake read made him feel embarrassed and sad, his mother said.
"Racism is something we’ve talked to our son about. We’re not ignorant to it. Neither is he," she said. "It’s not like he’s not aware but to say this is something they’re going to study, I’ve got a problem with that."
Taylor, 60, declined a request for an interview made through her publisher, Penguin Young Readers Group, but noted that she addressed concerns of parents like Debra Drake in the forward to the 25th-anniversary edition of the novel.
"As a parent, I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words," Taylor wrote. "But also as a parent I do not understand trying to prevent a child from learning about a history that is part of America."
Taylor’s novels are based on stories her father and other relatives told her.
"I must be true to the stories told," she wrote.
"My stories will not be ‘politically correct,’ so there will be those who will be offended by them, but as we all know racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain."