UPDATE » February 13, 2007: School Board Retains Challenged Books
February 6, 2007
Susan L. Drazic, Board President
Board of Education, Howell Public Schools
411 N. Highlander Way
Howell MI 48843
Dear Ms. Drazic and Members of the Board of Education:
We write to oppose efforts to remove the books, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Black Boy by Richard Wright, from the Howell High School 11 th grade English curriculum. We have been informed that these award-winning novels have been attacked and labeled "smut" because they contain sexual themes and profanity. The books’ chief challengers are members of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, the group which earlier this year objected to the school’s use of the book, The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell. In addition, we understand that objections to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five have also been raised.
The sexual content and profanity in The Bluest Eye and in Black Boy represent small but essential parts of the novels, consistent with the kind of material that high school students frequently read. Indeed, if students were precluded from reading literature with sexual content, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Michigan.
The challengers’ focus on the sexual content of The Bluest Eye and Black Boy is misleading. T hese books are primarily concerned not with sexuality but with the important issues created by differences in social class and race. They are especially appropriate to the high school classroom. Professor Fred Barton, who teaches at Michigan State University and is president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English put the matter this way: "In a time when distinctions are being drawn ever more sharply between the races, and as a nation we seem to be moving apart from one another, these discussions are both timely and important."
In addition, both books are widely recognized as works of significant literary and artistic merit, and their authors are highly acclaimed. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 for her collected works, of which The Bluest Eye is her first novel. Morrison is a Pulitzer Prize recipient, and her work has been called part of the "canon" of American literature. According to the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Richard Wright’s Black Boy " describes vividly Wright’s often harsh, hardscrabble boyhood and youth" growing up in Mississippi and Tennessee . Alfred Kazin, writing in the New York Times Book Review called Wright " a great American writer" whose novel "speak[s] with his own voice about matters that still resonate at the center of our lives." Both books are widely taught in high schools and colleges around the country. Indeed, the school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to literature of this sort in high school.
It appears that Slaughterhouse Five , which presents the author’s fictionalized account of his experiences in wartime, has also been challenged for sexual content. A highly-acclaimed novel set during the Second World War, Slaughterhouse Five vividly and effectively conveys the experiences of a prisoner of war, and sexual themes and violence are an essential part of this story which has become a hallmark of high school reading lists around the country.
The Board of Education’s examination of these books based on a few isolated pages rather than a reading of the book as a whole would be fundamentally at odds with an educationally-based assessment of a literary work. As the National Council of English Teachers’ Statement on Censorship and Professional Guidelines cautions, parts of a book cannot be judged in isolation, but can only be assessed as part of a larger literary whole.
Without questioning the sincerity of those seeking removal of the books, their views are not shared by all. As many courts have observed, public schools have the obligation to "administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children." Leebaert v. Harrington , 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). No parent has the right "to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught." Id. Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having "to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter." Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc ., 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Swanson v. Guthrie Indep. School Dist ., 135 F.3d 694, 699 (10th Cir. 1998); Littlefield v. Forney Indep. School , 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001).
The practical effect of acceding to any individual’s request to remove materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs, leaving school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands. The normal response to a parent or student who objects to a particular assignment is to offer an alternative assignment. This addresses the concerns of those who seek to limit their exposure to certain words and ideas, without infringing the rights of the many others who are eager for a more inclusive and expansive education.
We strongly urge you to keep these books in 11 th grade English classrooms. In our experience, controversies of this sort are best handled by enriching the curriculum, not restricting it, and by including additional voices rather than silencing any. If we can be of assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call us at (212) 807-6222.
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
National Coalition Against Censorship
Ricci Joy Levy
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation
Director, Freedom to Read
Director, Communications/Public Affairs
Association of American Publishers
Mary Ellen Aria
The Youth Advisory Board
Youth Free Expression Network
A project of the National Coalition Against Censorship
Great Lakes Booksellers Association
Feminists for Free Expression
» Read coverage of the case on the AS IF (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom) blog
» Read Elaine Boosler’s commentary in The Huffington Post