Before We Challenge Books, We Should Be Challenged By Them – In Defense of Being Uncomfortable And What Toni Morrison Taught Me

 

Toni Morrison passed this past week. She was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and what she did (and still does) for this white, upper middle class male teacher is something that I will always value as a life-long student: she made me understand that I don’t understand.

And she made me uncomfortable in my own skin to the point it still forces me to take a hard objective look at myself, my actions, and how I treat others. She also makes me look at the past through different lenses, especially my upbringing in a small rural town in Georgia.

Tomi Morrison was the author of some of the most banned and challenged books in American libraries and classrooms. From a February, 2016 article by Micheal Schaub in the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe they should call it Toni Morrison week. In 2016, Banned Books Week will spotlight works by authors of color. And Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of the authors of color whose works are now most banned and challenged.

Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was in the top 10 most challenged books in 2014 (the most recent year for which data are available) and 2013. In 2012, it was her novel “Beloved.” In 2006, both “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” made the top 10. During the decade prior, a tally of the 100 most banned and challenged books has three Morrison titles: “The Bluest Eye” at No. 32, “Beloved” at No. 45 and “Song of Solomon” at No. 84.

In a news release, the American Library Association said that estimates indicate that more than half of challenged or banned books are from non-white writers. The group says this year’s Banned Books Week “will celebrate literature written by diverse writers that have been banned or challenged, as well as explore why diverse books are being disproportionately singled out in the first place.”

Other books by writers of color that are perennial targets are Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me Ultima” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

That town I grew up in Georgia? It’s just 25 miles from where Alice Walker grew up, and I had the privilege of taking one of Maya Angelou’s classes while attending Wake Forest University.

Experiences reading both and actually interacting with one challenged me as a student, but especially as a teacher in public schools whose students come from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds and are experts of where they have come from. That means I always have to be willing to learn and listen and be challenged, and sometimes be uncomfortable.

Thinking about how Toni Morrison’s books have been challenged reminded me of a post I had in December of 2016. My view has not changed.

From that post:

News that a Virginia school district recently pulled its copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from all of its classrooms and school libraries is another disturbing sign of what might be part of what divides America so much as evidenced by the recent presidential election: the fear of being challenged by what others have to say.

Of course, I am biased on the issue of banning books and removing them from circulation in libraries in schools based on the concerns of one or a couple of parents. I am a high school English teacher who teaches AP classes. It infringes on censorship in my mind, especially if that book has been a staple in American schools for quite a while such as Harper Lee’s classic and Twain’s iconic work.

Now, that does not mean that I want all students to read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth or Lolita by Nabokov, but great literature is meant to be an exploration of sorts into the perspective of society in which the book was written.

It’s sort of like an archaeological dig into the past that allows us to experience how society viewed itself, viewed others, and what society held dear. It also teaches us how we have changed, whether for the better or for the worse. Great literature is meant to challenge us on a variety of levels.

  • If you want to read how the Industrial Revolution and the rise of cities began to change the nuclear family, then read Dickens.
  • If you want to see how the rise of the atomic age and Communism changed our perception as a society, then read Bradbury, Huxley, or Orwell.
  • If you want to see how the role of women in society has been more of a battle for equality than we would like to admit as a country, then read Chopin and then pick up some Atwood.

Great social movements tend to be preceded by works of literature and music that allow for ideas of thought and emotion to be expressed and take root. Look at the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement. Less than half a century after the Civil Rights Act, we elected our first minority president.

I distinctly remember in 2013 one parent in Randolph County, NC complained about Invisible Man, arguably the most famous novel from the Harlem Renaissance. The school board removed it from the schools for a short while. From NPR.org:

“A North Carolina county voted this week to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. The Asheboro Courier-Tribune reports that the decision followed a complaint from a parent, who called the novel “too much for teenagers.” The decision was 5-2, with one board member claiming, “I didn’t find any literary value.” The 1952 novel, which won the National Book Award, is among the most famous novels dealing with black identity — and black invisibility — in America. The famous opening lines of the novel read, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

My first argument is if the book itself is too much for teenagers, then teenagers are in for a rude awakening when they as teenagers go off on their own in the world of college or the work force.

Just look at the news today.

However, my second inclination is to ask the parent and that school board member who made the comment about literary value of Ellison’s (or even Morrison’s) work if either had actually read the book.

And allowed the book to challenge him/her.

Great literature teaches us about ourselves, especially the parts of ourselves that we do not want to acknowledge but that control how we perceive others and how we treat others. And in a nation where many hold the Second Amendment and guns with as much fervor as it does the Bible (which by the way is one of the most challenged books in the country), should we not also look at the First Amendment and its protection of the freedom of speech as dearly?

The very man who is the president of the United States freely exercises his right for freedom of speech through his Twitter account. He exercises that right because he can.

Do I agree with him? Hardly ever. And that’s my right. But having read great works of literature challenges me and forces me to have difficult and uncomfortable, yet peaceful, confrontations with issues and society.

I do not believe that our current president is willing to be challenged and be uncomfortable. I think part of the reason is that he doesn’t read. And what I mean by that is that he does not allow himself to be challenged by the words, the actions, the viewpoints, and the events that have shaped this country. In fact, when he “writes” his books, he has someone do it for him.

Take a look at this report from a 2013 issue of The Week entitled “America’s most surprising banned books.”

It includes: Tarzan, the DictionaryCharlotte’s Web, Anne Frank’s account of her hiding, The Lorax, “Little Red Riding Hood”, Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Twelfth Night by Shakespeare.

You need to read it. And if you are going to challenge works of literature based on sexual imagery, then that would eliminate almost all of Shakespeare except Julius Caesar, but that has people washing the hands in the blood of a murder victim, soothsayers, and talking ghosts.

Maybe the fact Toni Morrison is one of the most challenged and banned authors is a statement that our society is afraid to look at itself through the eyes of others who have lived lives along different paths. That fear leads to division and that division manifests itself in so many ways, including violence.

This country desperately needs to learn about itself and listen to those whose viewpoints and experiences and words can challenge us to be better than we were yesterday and better than we are today.

This country needs to be a country of learners.

And Toni Morrison was and still is a great teacher.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Before We Challenge Books, We Should Be Challenged By Them – In Defense of Being Uncomfortable And What Toni Morrison Taught Me

  1. Tripp, I couldn’t agree with you more. Your eloquent words hit the mark of the truest eye. With the passing of Toni Morrison now and such literary giants before her, our civilization has indeed lost some of its greatest purveyors of insightful, though often uncomfortable, truths. As history has shown, forward thinking innovators and those brave enough to communicate honestly from their own frames of reference are frequently disregarded, and often disrespected during their lifetimes; many times afterwards, as well. As a society, let’s put away the metaphorical hemlock and let our post-modern Socrateses continue to speak.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Stuart Egan: What Toni Morrison Taught Me | Diane Ravitch's blog

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