I was half-listening to the news on television during the holiday break when I heard a reporter mention something about removing Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple from a school. I immediately went into "what kind of backwoods, narrow-minded, slack-jawed, academically challenged yokel" mode, but my internal rant was cut short when the reporter said the school in question is in North Carolina.
Of course it is.
According to portcitydaily.com, this all started when concerned parent Michael Norton emailed Brunswick County school board members, blind-copying several other citizens, with some excerpts from The Color Purple that had strong language, rape scenes, incest and detailed a lesbian relationship.
Norton went on to say [sic throughout]: "I say do not expose the minds of our youth to this immoral filth and somehow link it to an educational need, when the only 'educational need' on this matter is quite well-defined in a biblical manner. There's enough of this offered [to] them by the worldly-wise as it is, through television, movies, music, 'non-educational books,' magazines, internet/social media, etc." A county commissioner shared Norton's disgust that the book had been included in approved reading material, which added fire to a debate that raged for months in the eastern corner of the state and garnered the national media's attention. (In a 3-2 vote, the school board voted in January to keep the book on a list of advance placement reading material.)
The film adaptation of The Color Purple has also come under fire — even by some in the NAACP. In a truly polarizing move, the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for not awarding the film any Oscars. Yet, prior to that, the group publicly scolded the film for its "stereotypical portrayal of black males."
Both that branch of the NAACP and Norton have unrealistic expectations. It is not the sole responsibility of one film to support the experiences of a group. The real challenge is to make sure there are enough films made that explore the rich diversity of that group. Similarly, a book should not be shunned due to its alternative content, but rather used as a teachable moment to highlight experiences, ideas and concepts that may differ from more mainstream and, in some cases, homogenized environments. After all, it's not like we are debating a magazine subscription to Juggs — we are talking about classic volumes of literature.
This is not North Carolina's first time at the "let's ban some classic literature" goat rodeo. Last year, the Randolph County Board of Education voted 6-1 to reverse an earlier vote banning another literary classic, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which explores and critiques race in America.
I guess my real issue with all of this, beyond the obvious censorship, is that, yes, parents have the right to filter information in their own homes. But academic environments and educators should always be vigilant in promoting academic freedom and fostering environments that encourage a free exchange of ideas and information. Included in the process of becoming a learned adult is exploration so that, with more information, we can accept, reject or edit ideologies that have been so germane to our upbringing. This process allows us to become our own unique individual.
I went to film school, and we were expected to see more than 500 films during our course of study. One of those films was Birth of A Nation, where the protagonist of the film is the KKK. Did I enjoy sitting through three hours of racist propaganda? Not really, but if I was going to be a film student, that film had to be a part of my professional vocabulary. This is the expectation within an academic environment — exposure.
Banning or challenging alternative literature sends an implicit message that the content's experiences or ideas are somehow inferior to more mainstream works. When I was a young student in public school, I checked out a book on Malcolm X from the library. One of my favorite teachers saw the book and asked why I was reading about that bad man. Because I held my teacher in such high esteem, I returned the book unread. It would be years later, as an adult college student, before I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Imagine my horror when I realized what an incredible story and role model of personal change I had been robbed of for so many years, due to my teacher's inability to entertain ideologies different from his own. That is the power and responsibility that comes with being an educator.
If any good comes from North Carolina's book banning tirade, it will be that instructional leaders become more learned and sensitive to their responsibility. Hopefully then, we can close the book on this unfortunate chapter of censorship.