It started a few weeks ago. I sat down at my computer to do a little procrastinating on Facebook when I noticed an article in the Plymouth Patch about removing literature from the classroom. Not just any literature, two amazing literary works, by two amazing authors. Beloved by Toni Morrison & Waterland by Graham Swift.
Apparently, one girls parents complained to the superintendent about one scene in the book Waterland, which contained sexual content. The Plymouth-Canton school district allows the study of controversial material, and it also has a process in place for parental consent and alternative reading material. Instead of Superintendent Hughes recognizing that, and the fact that the girl in question received an alternate assignment. He unilaterally, after 10 years of instruction, with no other complaints, removed the text from the classroom in the middle of classroom discussion.
Of course, there was community outrage! You could have seen it coming from a mile away. Parents who consented to the reading of the book were upset. Students who were in the middle of a compelling book that was ripped from there hands were upset and confused. A community that prides itself of having one of the best High School Parks in the state was outraged. Not only because the book was removed, but because one parent complained and the decision was made unilaterally without due process.
The superintendent recognizing his error, instituted a review process for the book Waterland, but a this time, another book was challenged, Beloved. The review for Beloved would take place first, since the students in AP English still had access to these books. Since it was too late for the students to return to the instruction of Waterland, the review for that book would take place at a later date.
If you are unfamiliar with the book Beloved,
Beloved (1987) is Morrison’s masterpiece. Reaching back to the legalized outrageousness of American slavery, Beloved takes up a real event—the slave woman Margaret Garner’s murdering (in 1855) her own child rather than allow that child to return into slavery. The novel explores the resources with which blacks survived a system they could not escape and would not accept. Deprived of their manhood, Paul D, Sixo and Stamp Paid manage nevertheless to remain men, just as Sethe sustains her motherhood despite vicious white attacks upon it. Rather than imagining the missing black father, Morrison conceives in this novel the entire race’s long-lost child—named Beloved. This character is simultaneously a crazed black girl wandering the roads, Sethe’s daughter come back from the dead (in search of love, but also of revenge), and finally a figure for the untold number of blacks who died during the several centuries of slave traffic between Africa and America. The figure of Beloved is Morrison’s most amazing creation. Even though she incarnates a history that must be remembered, her return to the world of the living cannot be borne. If Sethe is to resume her life and turn her own tormented past into purpose, she must escape Beloved's stranglehold.
The book may have some mature language and some uncomfortable scenes, but it has great educational value. It is impossible to teach and explore the TRUE nature of slavery without a some uncomfortableness.
The review committee for Beloved, agreed and issued the following ruling:
Per the vote of the nine member Complaint Review Committee, it is recommended that Beloved, a novel by Toni Morrison, remain in the AP English curriculum.
On December 20, 2011, parents Matt and Barbara Dame filed an official complaint (via form 9130 F2) related to the use of Beloved in the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park Advanced Placement English course.
Per the administrative guidelines for Board policy 9130, a Complaint Review Committee was convened to develop a recommendation to determine if Beloved should be removed from the AP English curriculum.
The committee met on January 11, 2012 to hear oral presentations from the complainant (Mr. & Mrs. Dame) and respondents (Brian Read & Gretchen Miller). After the oral presentations, the committee deliberated. The committee met again on January 17 to further deliberate. The committee concluded these deliberations and voted anonymously.
The committee used the following criteria in their evaluation of the novel:
- the appropriateness of the material for the age and maturity level of the students with whom it is being used
- the accuracy of the material
- the objectivity of the material
- the necessity of using the material in light of the curriculum
Because P-CCS Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Hughes previously stated that he would honor the recommendation of the committee, Beloved will thus continue to be used as a resource in the P-CEP AP English course.
While I was thrilled at the ruling for Beloved, I knew that the work wasn’t done, and I knew that the fight wasn’t over. I have always been an activist. Now it was time for me to be an activist parent. My son is 6. And while he is currently reading books in school like The Little Engine That Could, when he gets older, I want him to have the same literary experiences in school that I did. When I was in school, I had a love affair with books such as Beloved and Waterland. I fell madly in love with texts that made me imagine another time. I felt the emotion and the desperation of the characters in these books. Beloved opened my eyes to slavery in ways that an American History textbook never could.
To hear Waterland being described as pornography was heart-breaking. The book Waterland, did not speak to me in the way that Beloved did, but it is an exceptional book. It is the story of:
The mid-life crisis of high school history teacher Tom Crick, who makes sense of his life by placing his difficulties in the context of the lessons he teaches about the French Revolution. And what are his difficulties? His wife has gone mad and kidnapped a stranger’s baby from a supermarket, which lands her in a psychiatric hospital; his school is cutting its History Department, forcing him into early retirement; and his students, led by the rebellious teenager Price, are becoming increasingly difficult to control, since they know that History will no longer be required and Mr. Crick no longer has the power to discipline them. In response, Crick throws out the textbook and, in place of standard European history lessons, tells the children intimate stories of his own life, in part to show them how personal and national histories influence one another, and in part as a way to make sense of his life to himself. Crick’s history lessons swerve into personal therapy encounters, as he reveals increasingly private details of his adolescent sexual exploits in the fenlands of East Anglia and tries to find the emotional roots of his wife’s madness by telling his students stories of her childhood.
The resulting narrative blends European history with racy personal confessions, jumps back and forth in time to tell a family saga spanning 250 years, and draws connections between global politics and individual motivations, placing Tom Crick and his students at the center of a vast sweep of uncontrollable events.
These brilliant books needed to be protected. So, I decided to show up. I went to my first school board meeting. Although, I was passionate, I didn’t feel I had anything to say. I just wanted to see, observe, and support. I met great people at this meeting, and I saw many friendly faces. The room was divided, those for the books and those against. I didn’t have any ill will toward the people against the books. I just felt they didn’t understand. I assumed they probably hadn’t read the whole book, they just read a few controversial posts and that is the wrong way to digest literature. As the meeting went on, a lot of people made a lot of great arguments, some I agreed with, and some I didn’t. It was evenly split.
Then this woman showed up. I really don’t know what to say about her except that she was angry and wanted everyone to know it. She went to the podium with the sole intent of creating controversy. With that goal in mind, she picked the most obscene quote from the book Beloved and without context began to scream it for all in the boardroom and all in TV Land to see.
All in their twenties, minus the women, fucking cows, dreaming of rape, thrashing on pallets, rubbing their thighs, and waiting for the new girl-
Then she asked, “why do high school students need to learn about ‘fucking cows?’ It was then that I realized that she wasn’t asking that question to get an answer. She was asking that question to get a reaction. She was successful. She actually got two. The first reaction was from a school board member who played into her hands and asked her to watch her language. She of course said ‘No’ and dropped a few more ‘f’ bombs for good measure.
But the second reaction was from me. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I hadn’t signed up for ‘citizen’s comments.’ At that moment, I decided that I could no longer be quiet.
Yes, the language was harsh, but people needed to understand why it was harsh. The subject matter was uncomfortable, but people needed to understand why. I knew that the review committee had approved the book Beloved. But I also knew that would not be enough to satisfy some people, some how I had to make them understand. Beloved is not an obscene book. But it does describe the obscene nature of slavery and it’s aftermath. The words chosen by Toni Morrison were not chosen to ‘raise eyebrows’ they were chosen to describe the emotion and the desperation of the characters in the book. To make the reader feel what these characters were feeling.
I felt I had to respond. Not to simply defend Beloved. But, to defend all great literature that makes people feel something.