A plea for book censors to stand down

September 23, 2013
dreaming

As noted in the previous post, this is Banned Books Week. Here’s a piece on the ugliness of censorship by James Blasingame, associate professor of English Education at Arizona State University, and the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.

By James Blasingame

“We got trouble, (oh, we got trouble), right here in River City”
Meredith Wilson, The Music Man, 1957

There must be something in the river water in southern Arizona!  Well, actually, there is no water in southern Arizona, but if there were, it would have something in it! Something that turns people into book censors. Dreaming in Cuban by Christina Garcia, a National Book Award finalist, was removed from high school classes this week in Sierra Vista, Arizona. The American Library Association (ALA) had never heard of anyone, anywhere, objecting to this book before, and those people really watch these things! In fact, they have a whole website dedicated to it, and they have been sponsoring Banned Books Week since 1982. Sierra Vista High School’s timing is impeccable on this one, making them the opening act in this year’s Banned Books Week, September 22-28.

Who could have predicted this? Of the many books challenged each year listed on the ALA website, not only has Dreaming in Cuban failed to join such “soul bludgeoning” (reference explained later) works as Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey, Scholastic, 1997) and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things  (Carolyn Mackler, Candlewick, 2003), it also has failed to join hands with classics such as Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck, Covici Friede, 1937), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, Charles Webster, 1884) or To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee,  J.B. Lippincott, 1960).  It even failed to stand shoulder to shoulder in the censorship fray with books that set the trash standard, like Sex (Madonna, Warner, 1992), or more recent works such as Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James, Vintage, 2011). A perusal of every list, by year, by author, by ethnicity, or by anything fails to show any record of anybody every banning Dreaming in Cuban.

Let’s get back to southern Arizona. Sierra Vista, which is adjacent to Fort Huachuca, home of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and 13 miles from the Mexican border, seems to be a recipient of trickle-down censorship economics from Tucson.  In 2012, despite valiant efforts by the Tucson Unified School District, some of the best authors the world has ever known were taken out of the high school curriculum, all in one fell swoop. These authors included Sherman Alexie, James Baldwin, Jane Yolen, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Sandra Cisneros, Isabella Allende, Matt de la Peña, bell hooks, Malcom X, Francisco Jimenez, Luis Rodriguez, Rudolfo Anaya, Martin Luther King, Ofelia Zepeda, and Stella Pope Duarte. The list of removed authors also includes a migrant worker named Cesar Chavez and some Chicago upstart named Barack Obama. To be fair, this was not the result of a school district book challenge policy implementation, but rather the implementation of Arizona legislation: Ethnic Studies HB 2281, which had the effect of removing books, poems, essays, and speeches considered classics by the grand majority of educated people in the world but political agitation by others. This was contrary to Supreme Court and other precedents on the topic of book banning, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.

A former Sierra Vista elementary teacher is quoted on the Fox News website as saying: “We’re bludgeoning their souls with this kind of material. It’s debauchery, and it’s just not worthy of our students.”  The offending, “bludgeoning . . . debauchery” consists of passages—actually more like paragraphs—that describe sex acts, the objectionable level of which would depend on the reader’s worldliness. As a former high school teacher (20 years), I readily admit I would not have had students read these passages out loud in class, but then again, we read some passages in Shakespeare that were just as bad or worse.  As you know, Shakespeare had to keep those lower social class groundlings entertained or be pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables or dead cats! And Canterbury Tales? Fuhgetabowdit!! Chaucer’s content would make modern Internet porn tame by comparison.

Although this may seem reminiscent of the Ladies’ Dance Committee’s appraisal of Marian the Librarian in Meredith Wilson’s  The Music Man who “advocates dirty books: ChaucerRabelais, and Balzac,” it actually has more in common with another dirty book, Ulysses, by James Joyce.  Dreaming in Cuban and Ulysses have much in common. They both give ample coverage to the breadth and depth of the human experience, providing readers with a viewing port into their characters’ thoughts and feelings, albeit some thoughts, feelings, and experiences that timid readers might prefer to pretend don’t exist. Garcia follows three generations of women from pre-revolutionary Cuba through their escape to Miami after the communist takeover. She uses third person, first person, and personal letters to provide insight into her characters’ experiences and psyches.  Joyce uses what was, at the time, an experimental stream-of-consciousness technique that may have announced the beginning of the Modernist era in literature, as he follows three characters in Dublin, Ireland, through a single day in 1904. Neither book looks away from those aspects of the human experience perhaps not often spoken of in polite conversation.

Joyce’s book was attacked mostly because one of the three main characters, a woman, thought about sex and failed to repress these thoughts—oh, and “unparlorlike” language. Currently, Modern Library (a group of stuffy literature professors) ranks Ulysses as the best English-language novel ever written; not too bad for a dirty book!

What the two do not have in common, however, is the ferocity with which book censors attacked Joyce’s classic. Serialization of the book, attempted by a small local press in New York City, came under scrutiny of the New York Anti-Vice Society, and the printers were taken to court, where they lost under obscenity provisions in the U.S. Postal Code. No more Ulysses on American soil, they thought. Meanwhile, the book was a huge success in most of Europe and smuggled into the US as contraband by literary aficionados. Not until 1933, when Judge John M. Woolsey concluded in federal court that “a work must be judged as a whole and not on the basis of its parts” would Random House bring Ulysses to the United States for good.

Other court precedents are relevant.

In 1957: Roth v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court set the standard for objectionable material as “To the average person, applying contemporary standards, the dominant themes of the material taken as a whole appeal to prurient interests” [Italics mine].

In 1964: Jacobellis v. Ohio, “contemporary community” was judged to mean nationally and not locally (no claiming your town has higher morals than the rest of the nation).

Over and over again, courts have found that a book must be judged by its “dominant themes,” must be judged as a whole—not by individual parts, taking into consideration, as stated in 1973: Miller v. California, redeeming “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Judges have also ruled that newly elected school boards cannot look through the list of books in the library or school curriculum and take out the ones they don’t like. In the case of 1977: Minarcini v. Ohio, a  school board had decided not to allow a teacher to use Catch 22 or  God Bless You Mr. Rosewater despite the fact that these had been in the curriculum for some time. U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that once a book is in, it may not be withdrawn by subsequent school boards or the library and school will fail to be storehouses of knowledge and be winnowed down over time. According to the courts, books earn a sort of tenure over time.

The bottom line in terms of court precedents is basically that while parents do indeed have the right to the final say on what their children read in school, no parent has the right to determine what other people’s children read in school.

In 1978: Right to Read Defense Committee of Chelsea, MA, vs. School Committee of Chelsea, MA, the judge agreed that local school boards had power, given by the federal government, to create school curriculum and choose books for the students’ use, but no individual or committee has “unreviewable authority” to censor books from the schools. The judge said that the idea of school committees year-in year-out “sanitizing” the school library of “views divergent from its own” was frightening. “What is at stake here is the right to read and be exposed to controversial thoughts and language—a valuable right subject to First Amendment protection.” And that’s un-American (my opinion, not a court’s ruling).

Dreaming in Cuban has flown under the radar for 21 years. No one has questioned that it is quality literature worth reading. It even has the gold standard of being one of 19 “Grades 11-CCR Text Exemplars” listed by the National Common Core Standards, which have been adopted by almost every state in the nation.  Who are the other authors on the list? Let’s name a few: Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Melville, Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest—well, you know, the usual suspects as found in any anthology of great literature.

Please, Sierra Vista Schools, leave Dreaming in Cuban in the school curriculum. We are preparing these young people for an adult world.  Books provide a safe segue to places they will soon be going in person. Provide alternate curriculum for those students whose parents don’t want their children to read it, as is their right, but do not let them dictate what everyone else’s children may read.  Tell the teacher to use some common sense about what is read out loud in class, but do not take what has been established for 21 years as a great book away from those who want to read it.

–(With thanks to Ann, an avid reader, who first brought this to my attention)

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 23, 2013