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If You Assign My Book, Don't Censor It

By Mark Mathabane

Sunday, November 28, 1999; Page B01

KERNERSVILLE, N.C.—A few weeks ago, school officials at Kearsley High School in Flint, Mich., decided to censor "Kaffir Boy," my story of growing up in a South African ghetto during apartheid. On the recommendation of a special committee of administrators, teachers and staff, the school has begun taping over several sentences and parts of sentences in its copies of the book after a half-dozen parents objected to my graphic description of one of the most harrowing experiences of my life: When I was 7 years old and trapped in the poverty-stricken ghetto of the Alexandra township, 10 miles north of Johannesburg, hunger drove me to tag along with a ring of boys who prostituted themselves for food. One parent called my description "pornography," according to the Flint Journal, adding that "Kaffir Boy" belonged in an adult bookstore rather than in a 10th-grade English class.

I wasn't altogether surprised by the parents' objections. The raw emotions and experiences in "Kaffir Boy," which constitute the core of its power and appeal, have made the book controversial ever since its publication in the United States in 1986. When it became required reading for thousands of high school students nationwide several years ago, it was challenged by parents in school districts in a dozen states and, in some cases, withdrawn. No, what surprises--and disturbs--me is the decision at Kearsley to censor the text, altering a passage that marks a crucial turning point in the book--and in my life.

As a parent of three public school students, ages 6, 8 and 10, I pay attention to what they are assigned to read. I've read them portions of "Kaffir Boy" and my other books, which deal with issues of hunger, child abuse, poverty, violence, the oppression of women and racism. I'm always careful to provide context, to talk to them in a language they can understand.

Every year I also talk to thousands of students about my work and my life in South Africa. I tell them how fortunate they are to live in America, how important it is not to take this nation's freedoms for granted. I recall for them how my peers and I were forbidden by the government in Pretoria to read the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I recall how empowered I felt after I clandestinely secured a copy of the Declaration of Independence. And I recall how, during the Soweto uprising of 1976, hundreds of students died fighting for recognition of their unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

When I came to America in 1978, I was stunned--and exhilarated--to find out that I could walk into any library and check out books that were uncensored and read them without fear of being harassed, thrown in jail or killed.

I have that experience in mind when I think about my own children's reading lists. In large part, I trust their teachers to have the judgment to assign books that are not only consistent with educational goals, but also with my children's maturity level. Should my children bring home a book I find objectionable, the responsible thing for me to do would be to request that my child be assigned a different one.

That's why I have no problem with parents who make such a request about "Kaffir Boy." The parents of a sophomore at West Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., where the book has also been challenged, did just that. They were not only uncomfortable with the prostitution scene, but also with my use of racially graphic language such as the word "kaffir" (a pejorative term for "black").

But I strongly disagree with censoring portions of the book. They have no right to decide the issue for other students. Should those students be deprived of what I believe is a key scene in order to make a few parents comfortable?

I don't think so. Books aren't written with the comfort of readers in mind. I know I didn't write "Kaffir Boy" that way. I wrote it to reflect reality, to show the world the inhumanity of the apartheid system. It wasn't an easy book for me to write. The memories gave me nightmares. What's more, after the book was published in the United States, members of my family in South Africa were persecuted by the Pretoria regime, which subsequently banned the book there.

"Kaffir Boy" is disturbing, but it isn't pornographic. As Kari Molter, chairwoman of the English department at Kearsley High, said, the prostitution scene, which makes up three pages, is "frightening," but it is "an important scene." I included it in the book not to titillate readers, but to reveal a disturbing truth about life under apartheid.

That disturbing truth included the terror and helplessness I felt as a child during brutal midnight police raids; the grinding, stunting poverty in which I, my family and millions of other blacks were steeped; the emasculation of my father by a system that denied him the right to earn a living in a way that gave him dignity; the hopelessness and psychic pain that led me to contemplate suicide at age 10; the sacrifices and faith of my long-suffering mother as she battled to save me from the dead-end life of the street and its gangs.

Not the least disturbing of those truths is the passage about prostitution. My father, the only breadwinner in a family of nine, had been arrested for the crime of being unemployed. There was no food in our shack, and my mother couldn't even get the usual cattle blood from the slaughterhouse to boil as soup. Desperate for food, one afternoon I linked up with a group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-old boys on the way to the nearby men's hostel. Their pimp, a 13-year-old boy named Mphandlani, promised that at the hostel we would get money and "all the food we could eat" in exchange for playing "a little game" with the migrant workers who lived there.

Once inside the hostel, I stood by in confusion and fear as the men and boys began undressing. In the book, I give some physical descriptions of what happened. When Mphandlani told me to undress, too, I refused. One of the men came after me, and I bolted out of the hostel. I fled because I knew that what the men were doing to the boys was wrong, and recalled my parents telling me never to do wrong things. I was called a fool--and shunned--by those boys afterward.

Resisting peer pressure is one of the toughest things for young people to do. That is the lesson of the prostitution scene. It's a lesson that seems to be lost on the people who want to censor my book. Teenagers understand what peer pressure is. They confront tough choices every day, particularly if they happen to live in environments where child abuse, poverty, violence and death are commonplace, where innocence dies young, and where children can't afford to be children.

Many students have connected powerfully with the story of "Kaffir Boy." The book, they've told me in letters and e-mail, teaches them to never give up in the face of adversity, not to take freedom--or food--for granted, to regard education as a powerful weapon of hope, and always to strive to do the right thing.

Could "Kaffir Boy" have had this impact without the prostitution scene? I doubt it. It was an event that changed me forever. Could I have made that point using less graphic language? Perhaps. But language is a very sacred thing for a writer. When I write, I strive for clarity and directness, so the reader understands precisely what I mean. To fudge language in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of one group or another leads to doublespeak, which is the death of honesty.

That very honesty is what prompted a senior from Sentinel High School in Missoula, Mont., to send me a letter a few days ago. In it she wrote that "Kaffir Boy" made her realize "that no matter what, there is always hope." It is this hope that I'm seeking to keep alive with my books.

I owe my life to books. While I was in the ghetto, groaning under the yoke of apartheid, wallowing in self-pity, believing that I was doomed to die from the sheer agony of frustrated hopes and strangled dreams, books became my best friends and my salvation. Reading broadened my horizons, deepened my sensibilities and, most importantly, made me think. Books liberated me from mental slavery and opened doors of opportunity where none seemed to exist.

Censorship is not the solution to the legitimate concern some parents have about what is appropriate for their children to read. I wish child abuse and racism weren't facts of life, but they are. Only by knowing about them can we combat them effectively.

What's more, there are alternatives to censorship. One possible solution lies in schools developing reading-list guidelines, such as those being drawn up by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in the wake of objections to "Kaffir Boy." Under the guidelines, teachers will still choose their own books, but they will be required to give students and parents a summary of the contents and potential concerns, such as profanity or sexually explicit scenes. I don't mind if my book doesn't make the list, or if some parents choose another title for their offspring, but if students do read it, let them read it the way I wrote it.

Mark Mathabane, a former White House Fellow at the Department of Education, is the author, most recently, of "Ubuntu," a self-published novel about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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