Reading Banned Books in Baltimore

Reading Banned Books in Baltimore

 Imagine you are a high school student who is eagerly reading and discussing books about kids whose struggles resonate with your own experiences. You love the books, and you read every chance you get-on the bus, in the car, even after you are supposed to be asleep. Even though you’ve struggled all through school, you’re on a different path now. Learning is more fun because you can see how reading books relates to your life, your struggle, your desire for a better world. More amazingly, after all the years of failing grades, you are finally passing everything, including the state graduation test. School has become a place you enjoy, rather than a place to avoid. Then one day, you hear a rumor: The school board wants to discontinue your literature program.  It makes no sense to you or your classmates, who are also much more engaged in their learning and experiencing success similar to yours. It’s got to be a joke. But when the school administrators show up in your classroom one day and begin packing up all of the wonderful books you’ve read, you know the rumor was true.

The scenario described above actually happened to The Mexican American Studies program in Arizona.  Despite the success of thousands of students, despite students passing the state graduation tests, despite students successful enrolling in college, the program was shut down.  State Superintendent of Schools Huppenthal enforced the ban and stated that the books at issue were being removed from the schools because they presented a biased picture of American history that shows  “Latino minorities have been and continue to be oppressed by a Caucasian majority.”   This seems like a pretty obvious assertion from where I sit.  So where is the harm?  Why did these books need to be removed from the classrooms immediately, in some cases, disrupting classes?  What books could possibly warrant such a radical response?  For a more detailed accounting of Arizona’s radical act of censorship and information on some of the books deemed worthy of banning, take a look at Jeff Bigger’s  article from The Huffington Post where he interviews a teacher from the Mexican American Studies program regarding the program and why Shakespeare’s The Tempset  was banned.  For further information on another book in the program, read this interview with Dr. Rudolfo Acuna, author of Occupied America, A History of Chocanos.  Dr. Acuna is a professor, historian, and social activist who teaches at California State University at Northridge.  I don’t know all the details of this unfolding crisis, but isn’t there a middle ground?  If people are upset or disagree with either what is being taught or how it is being taught, wouldn’t the community be better served by a dialog or mediation process?

After I read Bigger’s article, I reflected on my own reading experiences, grateful, that I had never directly experienced such an act of censorship. Then I remembered Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.  In the late 1960’s as a student in a Catholic girls’ high school in Baltimore, Maryland,  Manchild in the Promised Land  was my summer reading assignment.  I remember this, not for the book itself, but for the controversy that it caused among some parents.  While I don’t remember many details from the book, I do remember my feelings as I read it.  I remember feeling confused by the world that Claude described, a world filled with cramped housing, street gangs, and people using heroin.  A world where people were afraid of the cops and kids went to reform schools.  Claude’s world was not my world, but I read his story with interest and fascination.  I remember feeling admiration for Claude simply for surviving and making a better life for himself.  I also remember the day the anonymous letter addressed to “The Parents of Ann Bracken” showed up at my house.

I could hardly wait until my father came home from work so that I could find out what was in that letter.  After both my mom and dad read it, they showed it to me.  The parents who wrote the letter had excerpted some parts of the book that they considered offensive and inappropriate for 15-year-old girls. I can still see the single-spaced pages and feel the vitriol and anger that poured from the letter.  And I remember my mom and dad’s reaction: they did nothing to stop me from reading the book.  They didn’t even call the school. They simply told me that sometimes people don’t like books that are about real life and some of the awful things that happen, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from reading the book.  The sisters who ran the school were also undeterred by the letter.  A few days after the anonymous letter arrived, we also got one from the principal explaining that she had spoken to the parents about their concerns, and that we would still be reading the book as assigned.

In retrospect, that incident with Brown’s book taught me a valuable lessons that I appreciate more with the passage of time: ideas are meant to be challenged and debated, controversy is a part of life, and most importantly, that books can take you to places you may never otherwise experience.  I also appreciate that my parents trusted me to read something that other people wanted to hide from their children.  The irony of the whole Manchild in the Promised Land story is that my high school is located in a poverty-stricken area of Baltimore where most of the people live in Section Eight housing, the kind of place where Claude Brown may have grown up had he lived in Baltimore.  I remember thinking: If we could all go to school there, why couldn’t we read stories that might enlighten us about the kids who lived side-by-side with our school?  Why was that book so threatening?  Was it the cussing, the drugs, the sex, and references to prostitution?  Or was the book threatening because we were in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the social order was being challenged daily—on our streets, in the evening news, and in the Congress?  With the benefit of hindsight, I am guessing it was more the implicit challenge to the social order that started the anonymous plea to ban the book.

Ask any student what makes a class worthwhile and they will likely tell you that they want to be challenged and engaged.  They want the material to relate to their lives.  And when it does, students will be with you all the way and work with surprising zeal.  Arizona’s  Mexican American Studies program engaged the students by providing reading material that spoke to their lived-experiences.  The teachers provided a safe space for them to discuss and process the ideas presented.  The kids were successful in school.  But people deemed the discussing of controversial ideas dangerous and the books were removed, boxed up, and put in closets.  But what about the ideas?  Those are not so easily disposed of.

Out of curiosity, I looked up a listing of frequently banned books in the United States and realized I had either read them myself or I had taught them in a literature classes.  Many of the books on the list are some of the most influential and memorable books I have ever read, including: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, 1984, The Canterbury Tales, and Catch 22, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  To my way of thinking, the purpose of teaching literature is to explore and challenge ideas. A good teacher will always engage the students with some of the historical background information relevant to the novel.  Then as the students read and encounter ideas and experiences through engaging with the novel’s characters, the class can discuss and reflect on the ideas, often applying them to current situations.  Many teachers even assign novels in the context of history classes, as my college professor did by assigning The Grapes of Wrath and Babbitt.  Both of those novels explore important time-periods filled with social change and upheaval.  The Dust Bowl and the Oakies made a whole lot more sense to me as I travelled with the Joad family and experienced the hunger and desolation that swept our country in the Great Depression.

I consider myself fortunate to have read so many of the banned books.  I especially appreciate my parents for their open-minded response to a call for censorship and for their unflinching honesty and willingness to discuss controversies. I remember how reading The Diary of Anne Frank opened the door to a discussion of the Catholic Church’s actions during the Holocaust.  I challenged my mother’s assertion that “things could have been worse” (probably for Catholics), and went on to learn more about that time by reading Hitler’s Pope many years later. I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird and our family discussing the unfairness of trials and the illegal lynching of Tom Robinson.  And it was my mother who served as an early model for activism when she read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring-and then paid us pennies to pick dandelions instead of spraying the lawn.

I am left to wonder what my life would have been like if I had never read those novels or discussed the ideas explored in them, if that one angry parent had won. And I am fortunate that my parents and my teachers were both open-minded and sensible when it came to encouraging me to explore the world of ideas found in literature.  I am also lucky that the adults in my life modeled positive ways to engage with conflicting opinions. And finally,  having both parented and taught adolescents for a number of years, I know that the surest way to get a kid curious enough to read something is to tell them they can’t.  Are you listening, Arizona?