Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane was challenged for use in ninth grade English classes at Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls, MN. Some parents objected to sexual violence and graphic language in the book. NCAC and ABFFE wrote the following letter to the school board, urging that the book be retained in the curriculum:
Board of Education
Independent School District 564
230 LaBree Avenue South
Thief River Falls, MN 56701
November 24, 2008
Dear Members of the Board of Education:
We write to oppose efforts to remove Kaffir Boy, a book by Mark Mathabane, from the ninth grade literature and language class at Lincoln High School. We understand that a few parents have objected to sexual violence and graphic language in the book, including the use of the word “kaffir,” a racial slur in South Africa. We also understand that a committee of educators, parents, and students has reviewed the book and recommended that it be kept in the curriculum and that students who do not wish to read the original book be given the choice of reading an abridged version or another book. We urge you to follow the committee’s recommendations.
Kaffir Boy is a memoir of growing up in apartheid-era South Africa and the racial brutality of that time. Class discussion of literature like Kaffir Boy gives students an opportunity to learn about and discuss disturbing but significant historical events. Precluding students from reading material with difficult themes and language would deprive them of exposure both to historical works and vast amounts of important literature, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Minnesota. The school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to challenging literature of this sort in high school.
The views of a few parents are not shared by all, and banning Kaffir Boy would violate the First Amendment rights of students and parents who want their children to read the book. 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).
Furthermore, the practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials will be to invite others to demand changes in the curriculum to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.
We strongly urge you to keep the unabridged version of Kaffir Boy in ninth grade classes at Lincoln High School. Those who object to the book are entitled to their opinion, but they may not impose it on others. They have no constitutional right to restrict students’ access to a book because it conflicts with their personal values. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
Joan Bertin Chris Finan
Executive Director President
National Coalition Against Censorship American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
UPDATE: ‘Kaffir Boy’ kept in classes – Read news coverage in the Thief River Falls Times, 11/25/08
"Book passage stirs up passions," Thief River Falls Times, 11/18/08