Latest victim of school book-banning: Toni Morrison

January 29, 2022 • 1:30 pm

These incidents are becoming so common that they’re like the old “dog bites man” stories. In fact, when a school decides not to cancel a controversial book or remove it from a library or a reading list, that becomes a “man bites dog” story.

This book is in the former genre, as reported by Kirkus Reviews (click on screenshots). . .

. .  and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

We learn from this that Toni Morrison’s first novel (1970), The Bluest Eyehasn’t just been taken off school reading lists, but actually removed from a school library. Since the book (which I read and liked, but didn’t see as a classic) deals with childhood rape and abuse, clearly you shouldn’t ask elementary school kids to read it but removing it from a high school library is a different thing altogether. That is a form of censorship:

From the SLPD:

A national campaign to ban books with themes dealing with race and gender scored a victory Thursday when the Wentzville School Board voted 4-3 to pull “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison from the district’s high school libraries.

The board rejected the recommendation of a review committee of district staff and residents who said banning the book “would infringe on the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves if they want to read this work of literature.” The book is not part of the district curriculum.

Across the country, the push to restrict teaching about race and gender equity includes library books that conservative parents and lawmakers say are divisive and serve to indoctrinate students with a leftist ideology.

“The Bluest Eye” tells the story of a young Black girl growing up during the Great Depression who longs for blue eyes because she feels ugly and oppressed because of her skin color. Morrison, who died in 2019, said she wrote the book in the late 1960s to show the psychological damage caused by racism.

The novel, which includes passages about incest and child rape, frequently lands on the American Library Association’s annual list of most commonly banned books.

Wentzville School Board member Sandy Garber said she did not consider her vote against “The Bluest Eye” equivalent to banning but protecting children from obscenity.

That is a distinction without a difference. You can ban books as a way OF protecting people, and that’s what’s going on here. But it’s useless, especially for the intended targets. Obscenity, for instance, will be familiar to every kid with ears and an understanding of language. Note, too, that the book is being banned from high school libraries; that is, made inaccessible to kids between the ages of about 15-18.  I suspect those students don’t need “protection” from their parents, no matter how laudable the motives.

But wait! There’s more:

“By all means, go buy the book for your child,” she said at the board meeting. “I would not want this book in the school for anyone else to see.”

Amber Crawford, a Wentzville parent who filed the challenge against “The Bluest Eye,” posted advice for challenges in other districts to the St. Charles County Parents Association’s Facebook group, including links to excerpts so they won’t have to read “the whole garbage book.”

At least two conservative groups with chapters in Missouri — Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education — have led the campaign against diversity and equity initiatives in schools.

No Left Turn in Education features more than 75 books on its website that it deems inappropriate because they “demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history, and divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.” Nearly every book on the list features either Black or LGBTQ characters.

What are they protecting kids from here? Books about discrimination? Do they want to pretend it doesn’t exist? Not all books are getting banned, though: the article has one or two heartening tales of someone actually defending  controversial work! But, by and large, censorship is not only rife, but increasing. And in this state, it’s largely by the Right:

While the book ban in Wentzville is unique in the St. Louis area, several other local school districts have encountered recent challenges to library books. Last month, the Lindbergh School Board voted to keep “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe in the high school library, and a review committee in the Rockwood School District rejected similar challenges to “Gender Queer” and five other books.

After a challenge to the memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” the Francis Howell School District’s review committee voted 11 to 1 in November to keep the book in school libraries because it “shared a positive message of hope for individuals in society.”

Local school districts have rules allowing parents to restrict their children’s library privileges based on individual books, authors or themes. The policies for book challenges are similar, involving a review committee and subsequent vote by the school board.

The challenges are related to proposed bills in Missouri and dozens of other states that would restrict the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive” topics on race and gender, said Heather Fleming, founder of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership and a Francis Howell parent.

“The whole point and purpose of this is to have a chilling effect on equity and equity education in our schools,” Fleming said. “We know this is about a story about a Black woman instead of scenes that are too mature, because we’re not banning Shakespeare.”

I’m not in favor of bills restricting teaching CRT, and i’m certainly not in favor of telling your kids, if they’re of an appropriate age, what they can and cannot read. I can’t remember my parents ever telling me that I couldn’t read any book, and I was a voracious reader who chose my own books.

The kicker is this: the same school district that banned Toni Morrison’s book also banned, at the same time, three other books. From Kirkus (I’ve added links to the books):

The other three books removed by the board have also seen their share of bans as well. All Boys Aren’t Blue has been taken off library shelves in multiple states, and Heavy, a Kirkus Prize finalist in 2018, was recently banned by a Kansas school district.Fun Homehas been a frequent target of censors; it made the ALA’s top 10 banned books list in 2015.

Now of course I don’t favor indoctrinating kids by giving them an entire diet of Woke books about “identities”, for to me that’s propaganda rather than learning. But surely there’s room for children to hear that there are people in the world who are different from them, and who face their own brand of troubles. And of course they must discuss them.

And is there ANY valid reason to remove books from a high-school library if they are not simply deaccessioning books due to space limitation?

When I was thinking of a list of “identity” books that I would definitely assign to high school students, especially in Chicago (because it takes place here), it would definitely include Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), which was both a bestseller and remains a classic not just of black literature, but of American literature. Surely, I thought, as it’s about the friction between blacks and whites, and neither a book about CRT nor even a valorization of blacks, but simply a graphic portrayal of the racism ubiquitous in America at the time, it couldn’t possibly be ban-able. I was wrong. I looked on Wikipedia and saw this about Wright’s book:

The novel has endured a series of challenges in public high schools and libraries all over the United States. Many of these challenges focus on the book’s being “sexually graphic,” “unnecessarily violent,”and “profane.” Despite complaints from parents, many schools have successfully fought to keep Wright’s work in the classroom. Some teachers believe the themes in Native Son and other challenged books “foster dialogue and discussion in the classroom” and “guide students into the reality of the complex adult and social world.” Native Son is number 27 on Radcliffe’s Rival 100 Best Novels List.

The book is number 71 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000. The Modern Library placed it number 20 on its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

So it goes. You might find solace in these musings of Stephen King:

20 thoughts on “Latest victim of school book-banning: Toni Morrison

  1. Yet another “school board”.

    We also need to know the books that the “school board” is shoveling into the school…. which begs the question (I guess), do we need a “school board” to weigh in on every single book?

  2. At the end of the day it comes down to those who fear knowledge, and those who don’t. The majority religion in the US has it’s foundational story rooted in the idea that humans were rightly punished for the sin of eve choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, rather than remain ignorant in paradise.

    I remember being pulled out of my 7th grade English class by my parents because we were going to read Siddhartha. Of course I went straight to the library to check it out. Now what will kids do when that isn’t an option?

    1. They’ll get it online. I can’t think of a better way to get kids to read a book than to tell them they aren’t allowed to. Which is what I hope will be the outcome of this insanity.

      I expect sales of Maus to spike.

      1. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but when I was in high school at the American International School in Vienna, our teacher read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying out loud to us, as she couldn’t find enough copies. She was an excellent teacher, though a tad prudish, and every once in a while she’d pause and hem and haw and turn a few pages. Of course someone was able to find a copy, which got passed around (only 17 in our grade), and damned if Dewey Dell hadn’t gotten an abortion. I still remember the poor girl’s name lo these many decades later.

  3. [ comment to yazikus ]

    (This ids agreeing with you ):

    The book is an inanimate object. The important thing is the analysis. Victims of religion view books as objects of worship, while what we do with books is use them as objects for reflection, for examination – agree, disagree, and so on.

  4. eve choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge

    There is an interesting alternative interpretation. The tree is actually the “tree of knowledge of good and evil“. So the problem is thinking in terms of good and evil, not doing good and evil. Ironically, the Abrahamic religion have been doing this in spades for millennia. To be fair, the secular are not immune to this type of thought.

    1. There is actually a fair bit of scholarly work on this idea and others about the tree – but I’m certainly leaning on my own experience of the implementation of this teaching. Good & evil comprises the knowledge of all the things, and as such, can be reduced to the idea that some things are better not to know. Which I very much disagree with. I’m in the more knowledge is better camp.

      1. It is difficult, at least for me, to reconcile the concepts of good and and evil in a deterministic or for that matter in an indeterministic one.

  5. Things will only get worse. There is an effort throughout the country by right-wingers to gain control of school boards so that they can dictate curriculum and the books students are exposed to. Once again, opponents of the far right are caught flatfooted in the competition to control local and state governmental entities. They need to wake up and take action on the local level. Not everything important takes place on the national level.

  6. Luckily, I was raised in a home where I was surrounded by books. If I read something that confused or disturbed or excited or fascinated me, that would be a topic of discussion around the dinner table. My parents surely expressed their opinions about readings and debated with me. These parents and the Boards who vote to remove books form HS libraries (I agree that there are adult books that aren’t appropriate for little kids) are anti-education. They think they can keep ideas from their children by banning books. Then when their teens read “naughty” books, the parents will never have the opportunity to argue or debate the ideas because their children will hide from them. They are laying the ground for alienating their children. On the other hand, they may be laying the ground for a new generation of narrow-minded uninformed bigots.

  7. There’s a simple solution for parents opposed to having books they ideologically object to in the high school library. Instead of asking for the book to be banned, find a quality book advocating the opposite view and ask for that book to be added.

    Let the people who insisted that it’s a matter of free information object, if that’s what they want to do.

  8. The King quote was probably delivered prior to the invention of relocating, removing due to “damage”, or other general “reasons” to conceal or remove books from United States public libraries – as well as “reasons” not to purchase new titles such as Andrew Doyle’s (aka Titania McGrath) such as not meeting specific library branch collection “goals”.

    1. That’s a great article. And yes, The Sympathizer was brilliant. I find it strange that the author was pleased (I assume that is what he means by ‘mission accomplished’) that the squid was all the student remembered. How could one forget the rest of such a powerful novel?

  9. When I was a kid … I can’t remember which school I was in at the time, we moved so often … but the book that was being banned for “obscenity” was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. So I went out & bought the book at a local bookstore & read it. & it became one of my very favorite books, one of the best books I had ever read up to that point & still, to this day. & I couldn’t really figure out what was so obscene about it. But people have dirty minds & they see obscenities in the most innocent things.

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