Education Opinion

The Book Police

By Howard Good — January 01, 2002 7 min read
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Deemed offensive by parents, a memoir by Maya Angelou was threatened with censorship. But reason prevailed—for the time being.

I am a member of the local school board, and I was just about to sit down to watch a well-deserved video with my family this past August, when the phone rang. It was a parent calling to complain about the book his 15-year-old daughter had been assigned to read over the summer: Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I would later find out that the book, which recounts the suffering of a black girl growing up in the Depression-era South, is one of the most frequently banned from schools, along with R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” series and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Now, a week before school was to begin, the father wanted to know who had chosen the book as required reading for all students entering 10th grade. The high school English teachers, I told him. He called them “incompetent” and their choice “irresponsible.” I reminded him that Angelou had read a poem at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration. For someone like me, who has childhood memories of craggy, white-haired Robert Frost, the grand old man of American letters, reading “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennnedy’s inauguration in 1961, this confirmed her literary pedigree. I hadn’t quite realized yet that this father was critiquing morals, not literature.

He asked if I had ever read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I admitted, with a twinge of embarrassment, that I hadn’t. Egotism tempted me to add that I was nonetheless familiar with the poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar from which the title was drawn—“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me/ When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore”—but I resisted. I just mentioned that my oldest daughter, also 15 and a prospective sophomore, had read the book during the summer and liked it.

The father urged me to examine Chapters 11, 12, and 35, claiming they contained descriptions of graphic sex. I assured him that I would and then, in an attempt to end our conversation on a helpful note, recommended that he speak to the principal about having his daughter read another book in place of Angelou’s. “You’re missing the point,” he said. The point was that the book was inappropriate not just for his kid, but for all the students in 10th grade and should be banned. For the first time, I understood exactly what I was facing. A bubble of fear welled up inside me.

Before alerting the superintendent to this disturbing call, I retrieved the book from my daughter’s room and sat down at the kitchen table and read the offending passages. In Chapters 11 and 12, Angelou recalls being sexually abused as a child by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, and in Chapter 35, she describes sexually blundering about as a confused adolescent. There is nothing the least bit sexy about these chapters. They are presented in terms of violence and victimization. Rather than lewd or offensive, I found them to be heartbreaking.

But would others? Or could I expect more calls from outraged parents? And what about my fellow board members? How would they react to repeated demands for censorship? They may not have been aware, as I was from years of teaching journalism, of the long, heroic struggle for freedom of thought and expression that began with poet-pamphleteer John Milton during the Puritan revolution in England. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” Milton wrote. Would the board agree? Would the community?

I was right to wonder. Just a day after the father had phoned me, a mother called to protest, as well. She gave a one-word review of Angelou’s book: “Disgusting!” I might have told her that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award in 1970 and that the New York State Education Department has since included it on a list of approved reading for high school students. I might also have pointed out that the sexual violence and exploitation described in the book reflect a growing problem; one recent survey found that four out of five students in grades 8 through 11 have experienced some sort of sexual harassment in school. Lastly, I might have suggested that a much greater threat than Angelou to children’s health and morals is their routine exposure to mass-media messages— commercials that use sex to sell clothes and cosmetics, music videos that use sex to sell CDs, movies that use sex and blood to sell tickets.

I noted that the protagonist in a coming-of-age story like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings could provide needed companionship to teenagers, who frequently feel lost and alone in a cold adult world.

But I didn’t. I listened to the mother without interrupting and then thanked her for her input and hung up. I was saving my arguments for the board, which had a regularly scheduled meeting that very night.

It turned out that all the board members had been contacted by the disgruntled parents. Although only one member—let’s call him Joe—openly sided with them, at least two others seemed to be leaning that way. Joe kept asking why the school would assign such a controversial book when thousands of uncontroversial books were available. There was a reasonable answer to this, but the person who had it, the director of curriculum and instruction, was away on vacation. She later told me that Angelou’s book had been chosen, in part, because some parents had criticized the previous summer’s reading list for not including any books by women or minority authors. Ironically, the attempt to solve one problem had created another.

The points I might have made earlier to the mother I now made to the board. Then, worried I still hadn’t gotten through, I added a couple more. I argued that if we banned controversial books from high school, our students would be unprepared not only for the intellectual challenges of college, but also for the difficult decisions of life. And I noted that the protagonist in a coming-of-age story like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings could provide needed companionship to teenagers, who frequently feel lost and alone in a cold adult world.

The last point was the most important to me but the hardest for the rest of the board to grasp. That may have been because they don’t read a lot; in fact, Joe has cheerfully admitted on several occasions that he has trouble understanding the little he does read. He wears his ignorance like a ribbon of merit. Having never recognized his own life struggles in the struggles portrayed in books, he can’t appreciate how anyone else could or would even want to—can’t appreciate the power of stories to heal, guide, comfort, instruct. All he can see when he looks at a book that explores what it means to be a man, or a woman, or just human are strange and forbidding words.

We have people among us—some of them members of school boards—who fear books and distrust education.

Our meeting ended late that night, and to my relief, the board did not ban I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Instead, we directed the superintendent to reexamine the process for choosing books for summer reading. We also agreed that the school would allow a substitute book for students whose families complained. Yet a feeling of crisis lingered, even deepened, over the next few days. The original complainers phoned other parents, urging them to storm a reading circle scheduled for 10th graders. Tipped off to the plan by a town gossip, the principal intercepted the raiding party in the hallway and marched them to his office. Students, under the guidance of an English teacher, were able to discuss the book unmolested—for now.

Curriculum experts have proposed a number of measures to prevent battles over censorship from breaking out. They say parents should be invited to contribute to the development of school reading programs. They say teachers should maintain files of professional reviews that support reading selections. They say schools should supply recommended, rather than required, reading lists. These are all good ideas and worth trying. But having recently lived through a censorship scare, I’m less confident than ever about the efficacy of either rules or reason. We have people among us—some of them members of school boards—who fear books and distrust education, and once they get fired up, there is just no telling how far the flames will spread.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2002 edition of Teacher Magazine as The Book Police


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