A school board in southern Alaska voted to remove five novels from an approved list for high school English teachers this fall. Last week, the Matanuska-Susitna School Board in Palmer, Alaska, voted 5-2 to remove the novels: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to news’ outlets.
The books were removed because of, to cite a few reasons, their use of graphic language, sex, molestation, profanity, racist attitudes, misogyny, and violence. Oh, and for “anti-white” messaging.
According to the local Daily News, board member Jeff Taylor described the controversial content as “things that are pretty serious problems, especially in our teenage world. Is there a reason that we include books that we even label as controversial in our curriculum? I would prefer these were gone.”
Board member Jim Hart said if he read Angelou’s description of her childhood molestation “in a professional environment at my office, I would be dragged to the equal opportunity office.”
Like these two men, we are all entitled to our opinions, especially those relating to literature and what literature should be made available to students. It is worth noting that the above mentioned books remain on school library shelves and a local movement supporting them is alive in Palmer.
However, what concerns me is the removal or banning of a book because of those reasons so often cited: sex, racism, anti-anything that is deemed worthy by those in power, brutality, and so on. I have read all the removed books in Palmer and have taught each but Invisible Man and Catch-22, which I thought too long and complex for the high school students that I taught. However, I always had great success with the other three, especially Gatsby and Carried.
But if the matrix we will use to judge books is the presence in them of profanity, brutality, sex, racism, sexist attitudes, and so on, we have placed the Bible on the banned list.
I am currently re-reading the Old Testament. Having just completed the Pentateuch, I am beginning to re-read the story of the conquest of the Promised Land. In Joshua 6, the whore Rahab is introduced and because she betrays her city (Jericho) she and her family are saved, but as is written in verse 21: “And they [ Israelites] utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.” Later in chapter 10 it is written how Joshua at Makkedah “smote it with the edge of the sword, he let none remain.” He does the same at Debir. Joshua’s conquest is brutal, but some of the judges of Israel, in the next book, such as Sampson and Jephthah, also offer reasons to remove or ban their stories from literature. Sampson, the one who traded his soul for sex, and Jephthah who offers his daughter as a human sacrifice, are no better than Tom Buchanan or Jay Gatsby in language or deed.
The road of removing, banning, or burning books is dangerous. To ban one book for a “crime” of language or sex or such, leads to a ban of all books. I offer that no book contains as much offensive material as the Bible. I show only a few chapters above as illustration, but beginning with Genesis, it is full of nudity, murder, lust (who are those “men of renown” in Genesis 6), envy, and more. Yet, every story from the Bible is used by Christians to teach a lesson. Look at how we use David, the murderer of the husband of the woman he impregnated, to teach a lesson(s).
Literature, which may be fiction, non-fiction, short, long, poetic, metaphoric, apologetic, and more teaches us a lesson of life. And as we all know, life can be ugly or beautiful, as its people are. All literature that contains value will teach a lesson that may be a new one learned or re-enforce an old one. No matter. It should be read and studied to determine if it has any value. Does it cause thought and self-examination? Does it open minds? If it does, keep it. If it does not, it will die its own death without being removed, banned or burned.