Recently, the Brunswick County Board of Education met to discuss whether or not to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Color Purple” from a high school reading list. The meeting marked at least the third time this year that a North Carolina school board has openly considered removing from a reading list or altogether banning a critically acclaimed work of literature after a small group of parents complained about its content.
Anyone who values academic freedom and believes that students should be taught critical thinking skills should be greatly concerned by calls to keep students away from great books. Sadly, even in 2013, these dangerous trends persist across the country.
“Although some may think that censorship is a relic from a bygone age, the urge to suppress seemingly dangerous or offensive thoughts will exist as long as human beings continue to think,” Brian Hauss, a legal fellow for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, wrote in September. “Last year, there were 464 reported attempts to ban a particular book from a curriculum or library, and many more go unreported.”
The objections to “The Color Purple,” which explores the plight of Depression-era African-American women in the South and regularly appears in AP English classes and exams across the country, have centered mostly on a scene depicting rape, as well as instances of profanity.
The other books that have been under the microscope in North Carolina – “The House of the Spirits” in Watauga County and “Invisible Man” in Randolph County – received criticism for engaging in similarly delicate subjects.
It goes without saying that ugly issues like racism, poverty, and violence against women are difficult to comprehend and discuss, but that is not a good reason to keep them out of high school classrooms and libraries. If schools banned all material that was unpleasant, students wouldn’t be allowed to read The Diary of Anne Frank, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and countless other literary classics that are regularly taught precisely because they tackle difficult and challenging topics that compel teenagers to think critically and ask questions about the world around them.
Luckily, many parents, students, and educators are fighting back against these short-sighted calls for censorship. In Brunswick County, for example, the parents who called on the school board to remove “The Color Purple” were countered at meetings by many students and educators who defended the classic novel’s place in high school classrooms.
“Removing this book is insulting to me and my fellow students,” 16-year-old Hannah Caison told the board. “We are not children, we are growing into young adults. Have faith in us that we can read this as a piece of literature and discuss it in a mature way … Rape is real. It happens in our world. If we can’t talk about these subjects, how will we ever find the solutions to the problems of our world?”
And the one North Carolina school board that voted to remove a book this year was wise enough to see the folly of its way and voted to change course.
After banning Ralph Ellison’s literary classic, “Invisible Man,” which examines issues of race and class in early 20th century America, not only from optional reading lists but also from school libraries, school board members in Randolph County garnered widespread local and national criticism, including from the American Library Association and the Kids’ Right to Read Project. Within weeks, the board reconvened and voted 6-1 to reverse the ban.
One board member, Tracy Boyles, said he changed course after reflecting on his son in the Air Force, who “was fighting for these rights [and] I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.”
The freedom to read is just as essential to a healthy democracy as the freedom of speech and all other rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. Of course parents should take an active interest in their children’s education and be mindful of what they are exposed to. But government-enforced censorship is always a slippery slope. When we deny students access to certain books or ideas, we deny them access to knowledge and the tools necessary to think critically about the world around them.
The debates taking place in school systems across our state should serve as valuable reminders to students, teachers, parents, and school officials of our ongoing duty to promote academic freedom, ensure the free exchange of ideas and information, and be mindful of the always looming threat that censorship and suppression, for any reason, pose to a free society.
Mike Meno is communications director for the .