In 2 Maryland Counties,
A War Over Words
By Annie Gowen
In Anne Arundel County, Superintendent Carol S. Parham ordered Maya Angelou's autobiographical "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" removed from the ninth-grade English curriculum, although it will still be taught in the 11th grade.
In St. Mary's County, School Superintendent Patricia Richardson recently removed Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" from the schools' approved text list. In both cases, superintendents overruled faculty committee recommendations to keep the books, yielding to the wishes of small groups of parents.
In each case, the removal of the book has angered many students, teachers and community activists, who believe the objections are racially motivated attacks against African American literature.
Free speech advocates say the Anne Arundel case is highly unusual, because race-based complaints about books used in U.S. classrooms typically have focused on concerns about negative portrayals of African Americans, such as in Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Both "Song of Solomon" and "Caged Bird" are considered by many scholars to be modern classics of African American literature. Angelou's book, a searing look at her childhood in segregated Arkansas, is a staple in high school English classes across the country and is on approved text lists in Howard and Fairfax counties.
The book's defenders say Angelou uses her poet's gifts to give students an evocative portrait of life under segregation, a firsthand account of a dark period in history that has the same immediacy as Anne Frank's did.
"It's the voice, the honest young voice," said Julia Pruchniewski, a South River High School English teacher who called it "ridiculous" that she can no longer use the book in her ninth-grade classes. "It's one thing to read about segregation from a history textbook, another to read it in a teenager's young voice. It's much more vivid."
Parents and educators who favor keeping the work have expressed dismay that such a small group of parents could wield such influence over a curriculum. About 1,500 Anne Arundel students read "Caged Bird" this year before Parham pulled it from the ninth-grade list of books. The decision is the first in Pruchniewski's 20-year teaching career in Anne Arundel that a book was removed from the curriculum because of parents' objections, she said.
"It's frightening," said Maura Stevenson, an Anne Arundel parent whose daughter read the book last year as an eighth-grader at Severna Park Middle School. "The school board is listening to people who are ignorant."
Ronald Walters, professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Maryland, agreed. "What the school system has appeared to do is be sensitive to a few individuals, and that's a bad way to run a school system. I couldn't imagine them doing this to classics that were boosting white self-esteem to which black parents objected."
But Sue Crandall, the Anne Arundel parent who sparked the protest against the Angelou autobiography, called the removal a victory for common sense.
"I had to stand up for what I believed in," said Crandall, who is white. "Caged Bird," assigned to her son this fall at South River High School, is not appropriate for ninth-graders because it is sexually explicit and gives a dated and slanted portrayal of whites, Crandall said.
"It is perfectly understandable for it to be anti-white, because it was written in 1969," Crandall said. But, she added, "[Angelou] portrays white people as being horrible, nasty, stupid people . . . and I don't appreciate being portrayed that way. I kept waiting for her to realize that white people weren't all bad. The book ends, and I'm thinking, `Didn't this woman ever realize all white people aren't Neanderthals?' "
Crandall said she thought the book would be "inflammatory for black kids," adding, "If a child didn't have negative feelings about white people, this could sow the seeds."
Seventy-nine percent of Anne Arundel's public school enrollment in 1994 was white, and 17 percent was black.
Angelou did not return several messages left on her office answering machine. Morrison, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Anne Arundel county officials defended their decision to remove the book, which had been listed as one of the "basic" texts for the ninth-grade college preparatory and honors English classes. School officials said they were not banning the book. "Caged Bird" will continue to be taught in the 11th grade and will remain in the school library.
After a small group of parents protested the use of the book, a faculty committee met to review the text in November and decided "overwhelmingly" to recommend keeping it, said Anelle Tumminello, the high school English and assessment coordinator for the county schools, whom Parham has designated to speak on this issue. But Parham ultimately sided with the parents.
"The atmosphere created by the parents made our ability to continue teaching the book difficult," Tumminello said. "I think she felt removing it from the ninth grade and retaining it for the 11th grade was a reasonable compromise, because the book is worth teaching."
The school district has received complaints from 14 parents about the book, Tumminello said. Most are concerned about the book's sexual content, particularly a scene in which Angelou writes of being raped as an 8-year-old by her mother's boyfriend. Others, including Crandall, were disturbed by the book's racial themes, as well as Angelou's social activism.
"She spoke at the Million Man March. To me, that's an alignment with Louis Farrakhan, and Louis Farrakhan equals hatred of whites and Jews," said Dianne Osborn, an Anne Arundel County parent who nonetheless stressed that her main objection to the book was that it is inappropriate for ninth-graders. "The book should not be taught in a county school."
Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" topped the American Library Association's "Top 10 Challenged Books" list last year.
Marjorie Heins, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union Arts Censorship Project, said the Anne Arundel case was the first instance of which she has heard of anyone attacking Angelou's book for its negative portrayal of whites. Those who challenge the book are generally concerned about its violence or sexual content, she said.
"For somebody to demand the removal of a book from a curriculum because it is anti-white raises an implication of racial motivation," said Heins.
Objections to Morrison's "Song of Solomon" are rare, according to American Library Association officials. The Morrison novel, which follows a spiritual journey of a young black man named Milkman Dead, was banned in a Georgia school district but survived a censorship attack in Columbus, Ohio, in 1994.
Bernadette Williamson, the mother of a 16-year-old Leonardtown High School student who read "Song of Solomon" last summer, said she was particularly disturbed by its depiction of a mother who nurses her son well past infancy and, Williamson said, appears to get sexual pleasure from it.
"It's just way too graphic," said Williamson, who called the book "trash" in a complaint to school officials.
"There are so many other things kids could read to teach them how to interpret literature," said Williamson, who is white.
"Song of Solomon" will no longer be required summer reading for the advanced placement English classes at Leonardtown High School or taught elsewhere in the school district, although it will remain in the school's library, a spokesman said.
St. Mary's County's superintendent, Richardson, did not return telephone calls for comment, nor did Leonardtown's principal, Edward Weiland.
The African American community in St. Mary's has been angered by the school system's decision.
"The decision was bigoted," said Everlyn Holland, 65, a retired nurse and Hollywood resident who is black. " `Song of Solomon' showed black people in a human perspective, with all the problems and emotions of genuine people instead of a one-dimensioned prop in someone else's story. What it did was put a human face on African Americans . . . and that makes people nervous."
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