Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Reading and Responding to the Censors: Ground for Defense
A reading of the 1933-1994 issues of the ALA Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom reveals a similar branching of interests on the part of censors. Annie on My Mind , a novel of first love between adolescent girls, is listed as a censorship target in every issue of the Newsletter ; All-American Boys is listed in two issues. The Drowning of Stephan Jones has been spotted, as has Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye . If the censor's canon reflects the literature currently offered to and read by young adults, then this diversity in the censor's canon may be seen as one good sign on an otherwise dismal horizon.
Recent cases in Iowa and California raise censorship issues in college classrooms and in the development of reading tests -- fields where censorship would not have been widely anticipated. In California, censors attempted to ban selections from Alice Walker's works from statewide tests, and in Iowa the Board of Regents required the three state universities to adopt a policy warning college students that the curriculum may contain sexually explicit material. So as not to be forced to focus unduly on sexual issues, the University of Iowa is reported ( Censorship News , National Coalition Against Censorship, April, 1994) to have adopted a broader policy requiring faculty to "give students adequate indication of any unusual or unexpected class presentations or materials." That's almost funny. Think about it: on a really good day, a creative teacher would need to wear a continuously flashing warning label.
It is easy to laugh at those who would censor. Hard to listen to them. But the censors won in 41% of reported cases of attempted censorship in 1992-1993 -- before the 1994 elections. The results of this November's elections suggest a need to listen carefully to potential censors -- and to hone different strategies in defense of intellectual freedom. At this writing, the top two items on the majority Republican congressional agenda are the elimination of entitlement programs -- including food stamps for children and mandating prayer in public schools. Political rhetoric to the contrary, 1994-1995 does not promise to be a better year for the rights of children, including the right to read. Advocates of intellectual freedom for young adults need now, perhaps more than ever before, to read widely, plan wisely, and understand their opponents. The common-sense approaches that have been used in the past -- i.e., providing carefully developed rationales for selected works and permitting parents to select alternative texts on request -- may not be sufficient in the future for two reasons. First, it is becoming almost impossible to anticipate the grounds for proposed censorship of literary works and address those grounds in rationales; and second, the arguments used in the defense of literary works are arguments that can be, and are, used to good advantage by potential censors. Fortunately there are excellent new resources available for teachers and librarians willing to take on the challenge.
A review of the grounds for censorship of the top 50 banned books reported by Foerstel in Banned in the U.S.A. is invaluable for those who would engage in debate with potential censors. For example, reading that censors have recently targeted Alice Walker, and assuming that they were beginning seriously to consider "womanist" literature, one might prepare a defense based on young adults' need and right to know about issues that permeate the lives of women and girls of color in America. But this kind of logic would be ineffective against the censors' argument reported in the May 1994 Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom that an Alice Walker story should be removed on the grounds that it is "anti meat-eating." Similarly, without knowing about prior challenges, it would have been difficult to anticipate the censorship challenge of Annie Dillard's An American Childhood on the grounds of violence, but censors have found the Pittsburgh snowball-fight passage to be dangerous reading!
Even knowing the argument against a challenged work in advance does not guarantee an effective defense. Last spring I was called by a school member in a nearby district to sit in on a community meeting to discuss A Day No Pigs Would Die . In many respects the meeting was typical: a small number of parents had read or heard about offensive sections of the book that had been taught -- without objection -- as a regular part of the seventh-grade curriculum for several years. The principal of the middle school arranged for a meeting to be held in the school library/media center for the English teachers, librarian, school-board representatives, and interested parents. The press was there also. At this meeting, all of the arguments raised by the would-be censors were anticipated, including the objections to the passage where Samson the boar teaches Rob's pet pig Pinky "a thing or two." The parents read this scene as a rape. It's hard not to read it that way since it is presented from an anthropomorphic point of view, as when Mr. Tanner tells Rob that Pinky's resistance is "All part of courting ... Samson just got his face slapped. That's all." Parents read about the mating through young Rob's eyes:
[Samson] was bigger and stronger and ten times meaner than Pinky. So he had his way with her. All the time he was breeding into her, she squealed like her throat had been cut. Every breath. She just squealed like crying, and wouldn't stop.
Not even after Samson had enough of her and got down off her, did she stop her whining. Not even then. Her rump was bruised and there was blood running down her hind leg. (p. 121, Dell, 1972) Mr. Tanner completes the personification when he tells Rob that Pinky "weren't nought but a maiden before this morning. Just a little girl, she was" (p. 121).
The teachers at the meeting, other parents, and one seventh grader who had come to speak for the book proclaimed that the students didn't see that scene as very important. One teacher reported that when she had surveyed her students several months after they'd read the book, no one mentioned the mating scene. The objecting parents then offered an argument that is hard to listen to, but important for anti-censors to hear. This was the argument: so long as the girls read the scene, even if they didn't remember it, the scene had entered their minds along with the rest of the book, and it might, like a single dose of L.S.D., come back to haunt them in future flashbacks. Two quick responses came to mind. The first was that even if alleged "L.S.D. effect" occurred, the result would be nothing so much as sympathy for creatures caged and hurt -- which would be healthy, wouldn't it? The second quick response was that literature isn't like L.S.D. -- a single dose of which can alter your brain and damage your ability to create healthy offspring; literature is mediated experience, read and discussed and put to good use by teachers and students in a classroom.
I listened as others at the meeting made these points, but I became uneasy. I remembered my own words on other occasions arguing for inclusion of books by and about people from non-dominant cultural groups as a way of providing valuable "multi-cultural experiences" for children and young adults. I heard myself talking to beginning teachers, echoing the words of Britton, Rosenblatt, Dixon, and Bruner about reading literature as a life-giving activity. Clearly I believe in the direct power of literature to affect lives. Just as clearly, the objecting parents at the meeting had the same belief.
Most of the parents at the meeting eventually were persuaded that A Day No Pigs Would Die was not, on the whole, a harmful experience for their children, but, in fact, an opportunity for readers to identify with a young man who has strong family values. Some were not convinced that a book with the words "black," "ass," and "bitch" juxtaposed in the same paragraph could be anything other than filth. Some continued to worry about the effect on their children of reading about a rape, albeit the rape of a pet pig. Everyone was satisfied with the principal's offer to provide all parents at the beginning of each school year a list of all common readings and to permit parents objecting to any work on the list to choose an alternate reading for their children.
Cases like this, which occur almost daily throughout the country, lead me to wonder how much longer we can both make the claims that we do for literature as transformative experience, and at the same time persuade parents to entrust their children to the literary experiences we select.
The new IRA collection Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking (1994) contains a number of essays examining this problem. Whitson's "Critical Literacy Versus Censorship Across the Curriculum" is especially helpful:
When opponents of censorship argue only for the students' right to read specific items, their defense of the materials that are being attacked by censors often implicitly supports the theory that portrays education as a process of transmitting specific bits of information to the students. (p. 14)Whitson argues that, rather than continue to collaborate in discussions of the safety or danger of specific works, we need
to articulate in more general terms how it is that literacy requires incorporation of the social, personal, and critical aspects that the censors would exclude. This articulation can only be accomplished through substantial theoretical work collaboratively undertaken by researchers and practitioners.... (pp. 22-23)In other words, rather than argue for A Day No Pigs Would Die as an important cultural experience of growing up on a Shaker farm, or concede that the book is, in itself, more harmful than some substitute with less "graphic" scenes, we should be constructing the argument that all literature -- including the alternatives assumed to be "safe reading" -- is subject to interpretation informed by personal and socially constructed knowledge; that all literacy requires skill in reading and re-reading; that no reading is, in itself, "safe reading."
Deanne Bogdan has gone a long way in the theoretical work of articulating a more complex reading of and response to would-be censors. In her Re-Educating the Imagination: Toward a Poetics, Politics, and Pedagogy of Literary Engagement , she offers a rich discussion of what may constitute an effective defense of literature. Recognizing that "some rationales against censorship collide with rationales for teaching literature and assumptions about the nature of literary response" (p. 78), Bogdan argues that,
Whether through book-banning or revising courses of study, both the political right and left have attempted to influence curriculum, and their assumptions about the relationship between the literature curriculum and social conditioning sometimes resemble each other.... both sides want to redress the balance of what they consider to be a lopsided picture of the world in the curriculum as a whole. (p. 83)Thinking of attempts to defend a work like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn against efforts to censor it for its racist language, Bogdan reasons that
logically and ethically, educators cannot embrace an affirmative action curriculum policy that seeks to engender attitudinal change and then suddenly cry "censorship!" when that policy is interpreted (by those whom it purports to liberate) as the right not to read books that reinforce for those oppressed by them the very psychic anguish the affirmative action seeks to erode. (p. 156)Perhaps teachers, teacher educators, and librarians should reconsider their grounds for the defense of literature in the light of a recognized need for curricular diversity and in the face of censorship. What are we saying about the nature and purposes of reading as we write those rationales? What are the best grounds for defense of YA literature in our time?