An Author's Insight
Secondly, I am growing increasingly convinced that, at least in most of America 2006, the way to defeat book challenges is to make them as public as possible. Obviously this depends, in part, on the community in which the challenge is taking place. But I'm hearing more and more that communities, even conservative ones, are getting really frustrated by the increasing number of attacks on our freedom to read, especially by members of the religious right. My sense is that we're reaching a consensus that, yes, it's okay if parents don't want their kids reading a particular book, but that, no, it's not okay to deprive all other kids and their parents of the right to make up their own minds on each particular book.
Which is, of course, the exact position of AS IF!
Along those lines, here's an interesting editorial from my local newspaper on the decision on a controversy about a challenge to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the decision to rule against the challenge. Their take? Right decision, but wrong strategy--because the decision was mostly made out-of-sight of the public:
The result was good. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” stays in the eighth-grade curriculum. But the way the Puyallup School District made the decision Wednesday was not.I agree. Mark my words: there's been a sea change in this country on these book censorship issues. Much of the public is now on our side.
Apparently fearing TV cameras and reporters and perhaps “outside agitators,” the district kept the public out of a crucial committee meeting to hear complaints against the acclaimed novel.
The tactic was most certainly a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Open Meetings Act. The committee was clearly conducting public business that should have been done in the open.
The issue didn’t involve sensitive legal, business or personnel matters. The task was deciding whether the evocative but gritty Ernest Gaines novel about slavery and the civil rights era was suitable for eighth-grade students.
Instead of letting the public in on the testimony and the committee’s discussion, the district both timidly and arrogantly decided – quite a feat, that – that this was a decision that should be made behind closed doors.
It matters not a whit whether the district had the legal right to close the meeting. It sends a terrible signal to citizens when decisions about something of such fundamental public interest as the books schoolchildren read are considered too dicey to make in public.
This attitude is patronizing and offensive. Puyallup’s school board members ought to tell Superintendent Tony Apostle they want the public’s business done in public.
That said, the decision on the book itself was the right call. Some uncomfortable situations in the novel – there are no sex scenes – are nothing that today’s eighth-graders can’t handle with proper guidance. The true offense of the book for most critics is the ever-present use of the “n-word” – without which the novel could not be an accurate depiction of its subject.
All along, administrators planned to offer training for teachers in using “Miss Jane Pittman,” which is part of a multicultural reading list designed to expose students to minority perspectives.
Objections that the novel will “traumatize” students of any race are misguided. Taught properly, “Miss Jane Pittman” has enormous value in helping students understand the historical issues of slavery and racism. To understand these is to understand America at both its best and its worst.