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With Rush Limbaugh baying about the evils of university liberalism and Newt Gingrich proselytizing for prayers in public schools, it comes as no surprise that another item on the New Right's agenda has steadily gained steam in the last few years: book banning. And if a school district around Philadelphia is any indication, the consequences could be even more chilling than anything proposed by our new Congress.
Take Marion Bartram, a 72-year-old retired orchard tender who as a West Chester school board member swears that she will fight to abolish the works of two Afro-American women writers--Jamaica Kincaid and Pulitizer-Prize winning Toni Morrison--from local public schools. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, she called Morrison "anti-family" and a "man-hater," and accused Kincaid of being a "woman's libber." West Chester school officials, who were attracted to both books partly because of the female protagonists, are embroiled in a debate over yanking the authors off school reading lists.
The books in question--Kincaid's Lucy and Morrison's The Bluest Eye-- are recognized nationally as literary gems. Yet the West Chester school board seems obsessed with the books' sexual imagery, to the point where one member, Randy Kenner, told the Inquirer that "I can't see any literary value in this book, and I don't think that's hard to understand. Our children are exposed to enough of this."
Enough of what? Children are exposed to violence and sexual imagery many times a day in visual and printed media. Morrison and Kincaid, with their lyrical prose and powerful descriptions, have produced works of beauty unrivaled by most contemporary--and many canonical--writers. They have created literary masterpieces that poignantly depict female adolescents coping with their burgeoning sexuality and racial identity. But for the West Chester school board, each writer's challenging of race and gender stereotypes seems to strike a raw nerve.
"In the name of policing decency," says Anthony Appiah, head tutor of the Afro-American Studies department at Harvard University, "people have in fact banned books for either racist or homophobic reasons or because they just don't like the ideas...But a book that explores the question of sexuality with intelligence - how is that going to do harm to a young man or woman?"
Yet apparently, some parents and school officials feel that such books have the potential to do irrevocable harm, enough so to start a crusade against them. the Office for Intellectual Freedom, which is run by the American Library Association in Chicago, estimates that last year there were 760 separate challenges nationwide to reading material, an increase from 514 in 1991.
"This phenomenon has increased tremendously over the last two years at both the high school and elementary level," says Robert Peck, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "A lot of new legislators, not only at the Congressional but at the state and local levels, including school boards, fear being swept out of office by those who are loud advocates of book banning. And it's a much more sophisticated effort than we saw ten years ago."
Quite obviously, since the groups leading the charge are well-funded and chillingly well-organized. Not to mention the fact that they have support from some of the most prominent members of congress, including Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich. And as Peck notes, many school district boards have become dominated by vigilantes such as Bartram, who joined the baord precisely because she was so inflamed by the literature read in area high schools.
The banning of literary works is nothing new. It happened in the soviet Union, it happened in Nazi Germany, it happens in just about any regime striving to impose one ideology upon its people. And while it is over sensationalizing to compare the banning of books to totalitarian regimes, what is happening in West Chester schools - and countless other high schools and elementary schools around the country - is an insidious threat to the very ideals on which this nation was founded.
Hallie Z. Levine's column appears on alternative Mondays.
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