Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What Happens when you let Draconian Parents control High School Literature

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” 
― Joseph Brodsky

Nowadays, whenever we hear stories about famous banned books - To Kill a MockingbirdThe Catcher in the Rye, even Harry Potter  - we show incredulity, but comfort ourselves with the knowledge that people don't ban books anymore, because this is the 21st century. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is still alive and well, as Idaho's Meridian school district has just reminded us.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie's award-winning story of a young Spokane Indian's struggles at an all-white high school, was banned in the Meridian district after a parent group complained about it. According to them, the book is full of filthy words "we do not speak in our home" and "anti-Christian views." Just to give you an idea of the vile, satanic passages in the book, the most controversial one was: “And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”

Let's think about what damage a line like this actually does. Perhaps to the bewilderment of these parents, their 10th graders do indeed masturbate, and seeing as their parents' are highly controlling people who see any swear words or sexual references as impious smut, perhaps these kids feel like they're doing something wrong. Enter Alexie, who with a hilarious quip, breaks down all the religious taboos surrounding masturbation and assures the students that they are not, in fact, ungodly sinners.

Sherman Alexie is a fantastic writer, both humorous and soulful, and the literary world said as much when it awarded The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007. The book is a profound exploration of race, class, and adolescence in general. It also takes a look at homosexuality, one of the other main offenses to the parent group. Forgive Alexie if he does not hold strict Christianity with the highest of esteem; apparently sending bible-thumping missionaries to try to convert everyone on his Spokane Reservation wasn't enough to make him forget that his people were systematically oppressed, displaced, and even slaughtered by sanctimonious Christians in the first place.

The uplifting part of this story is that, instead of simply accepting the ban, students rallied in defense of Alexie, with over 350 signing a petition to keep the book in the curriculum. Even when the school board ignored the petition, the students teamed up with a local bookstore to hand out more than 300 free copies to any student who wanted one.

Of course, the parents weren't too pleased, and responded by calling the cops, who after going to the bookstore and realizing that absolutely no laws were being broken, let the give-away continue.

These events force us to consider just how committed we are to protecting artistic freedom, even when it asks difficult questions. Instead of skimming through the book and keeping a tally of swear words, perhaps the parents could have actually read it. If they had, they would have found that it wasn't really about the sex and profanity, but about an American Indian boy's life in a white world, and all the difficulties that entails. This is the 21st century - let's put book-banning behind us, let's embrace the voices that challenge injustice.