Two books in the AP English Literature class at a Michigan high school are the target of a book-banning effort by local parents. Under fire are Toni Morrison's Beloved and Graham Swift's Waterland. The Isak reader who tipped me off to this story tells me that the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools superintendent banned Waterland upon parental complaint "without so much as reading it," outside of a couple pages that involve two fourteen-year-olds exploring each other's bodies.
I spoke with Brian Read, one of the three AP literature instructors at Plymouth-Canton, which is a school district comprising three communities outside of Ann Arbor. Read told me that Waterland was pulled from his students' hands when they were halfway through the novel, cutting off classroom conversations and diminishing the students' critical study. This novel was supposed to set up themes that are further explored in Beloved, which the class is now reading. Read and his students are waiting to hear if they will not be permitted to finish this book.
Last week, Beloved came up for review in a public hearing, with parents and teachers arguing on both sides about the legitimacy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel authored by America's most recent Nobel laureate. Waterland, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize, is due to have its day in court soon.
Here is what the supporters of keeping Beloved out of the hands of teenagers had to say:
Barb Dame argued that Beloved was a fictitious account set upon its real-life backdrop of slavery, and contained gratuituous (sic) language, violence and sex acts that provide no historical context for the reader.
She also argued the book was given an 870 Lexile rating, which rates the complexity of the language within a work. A Lexile score of 870 equates to about a fifth-grade reading level. She compared its Lexile rating to Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach.
"Mature, right?" Barb Dame said.
This is an amazing comparison. I don't know about this Lexile system, but I can testify that reading Roald Dahl and reading Toni Morrison are radically different experiences. Both good ones, mind you. But Morrison is known for her inventive, linguistically-dense novels and complex storytelling. I love her for this. Reading her for the first time at age 28 demanded my alertness. I hardly think a smart high school senior would be coasting through her education if she had Beloved in her back pocket.
Brian Read tells me that the Lexile comparison is "absurd." He says that the measurement is used as an algorithm to be a partial indicator of a text's usefulness in teaching people to read. So, it accounts for sentence length, word frequency, and similar indicators. But no one, Lexile executives included, "would say that it should be a gauge to measure the literary value of a work," Read said. "Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has a low Lexile score, and no one would challenge the literary value of that."
According to the report from the school hearing, the parents also criticized what they saw as "gratuitous sex and violence in the book." This is startling, given that Beloved is pointedly about slavery, rape, and how state-sponsored human ownership influenced those who lived in its immediate aftermath -- particularly seen in how characters come to terms with living in their own bodies, bodies legally not their own for so long. To tell a story about this era in a way that does not integrate violence and sexuality would simply not be honest.
And speaking of honesty: It is appropriate for high school seniors to know about sex, and about violence. It is appropriate for them to encounter fiction that offers a picture for how these realities play into the culture they are about to step into as adults.
From the hearing report:
Additionally, Matt Dame said, the book contains passages containing sex with ghosts, forced oral sex and infanticide.
"I don't see the value of this novel in the school curriculum," Barb Dame said. "I just don't see it."
Matt Dame also criticized repeated instances throughout the novel where he said God's name was used in vain.
"If any of this was offensive to Allah or Hindus it would never be in our school district," he said.
What is surprising here is that Beloved is in many ways a religious book. Baby Suggs is a preacher who creates a kind of church in a clearing in the woods, and her sermon is one of the most moving and spiritual episodes in all of American literature. Baby Suggs speaks of the divinity of self-love and communal affirmation. I will quote from it at length because I love it dearly:
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, "Let the children come!" and they ran from the trees toward her.
It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women, and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and exhausted for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
She told them that the only grace they could have was they grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
"Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up."
The challengers of Beloved also argue that slavery should be taught with nonfiction, not fiction. Incidentally, Morrison's novel was based on a newspaper account of a real-life slave killing her child to spare her a life of servitude. But the real point is this, and I say it even as I make my living as a journalist: not all truth can be found in true stories.
Brian Read points out that Beloved isn't so much about slavery, but "the legacy of that trauma, the psychological impact on the people who lived through that." It relates directly to contemporary race dynamics. "Students need to be challenged both intellectually and with difficult material that is relevant," Read told me.
The daughter of the parents leading the book challenge was apparently given William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to read as an alternative. Which is a good book as well, though the student will not have the benefit of classroom discussions and supplementary material. And all this is beside the point anyway.
Most of the community, and the students themselves, know this. Read tells me that students who had to turn in their copies of Waterland have ordered their own editions. Parents ordered their own copies. A community book club is forming to read Beloved together, peopled in part by parents who want to approach the anti-censorship conversation from an informed point-of-view. A Facebook page called "Supporters of AP English Freedom" protests the banishment of books in Plymouth-Canton schools and is igniting thoughtful conversation among parents, teachers, students, and former students.
Brian Read is seeing his students more avidly approaching Toni Morrison's novel in his classroom.
"Students feel much more privileged reading Beloved because they had the other one taken away from them. They feel insulted by it, and rightly so. Most of them are seniors, six months away from attending college, and they are ready to engage with difficult material. They have come out beautifully for the books. They've spoken at the school board meetings with a clarity and eloquence of speech that shows how capable they are."
The Board of Education is accepting feedback on the proposal to remove Beloved from the school curriculum. Tell them what you think about this at firstname.lastname@example.org. The final decision is expected tomorrow.
- Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read
- American Library Association: Censorship in Schools
- Freedom to Read Statement
UPDATE: Even my niece, at five months old, knew Beloved was worth reading. See her roving eyes below the jump.