Cuss words, the n word, censorship, & Pat Conroy
Wednesday, October 31, 2007 1:42:00 AM
by Beth Fehlbaum
|One of the issues in my novel, Courage in Patience, is censorship.
Teaching the Truth (from NCTE.org online-newsletter)
To support the students campaigning against the censorship of The Prince of Tides and Beach Music in Nitro, West Virginia, the books’ author, Pat Conroy, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper that “scolds censors [and] praises teachers and students.”
A Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Gazette:
I received an urgent e-mail from a high school student named Makenzie Hatfield of Charleston, West Virginia. She informed me of a group of parents who were attempting to suppress the teaching of two of my novels, “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music.” I heard rumors of this controversy as I was completing my latest filthy, vomit-inducing work. These controversies are so commonplace in my life that I no longer get involved. But my knowledge of mountain lore is strong enough to know the dangers of refusing to help a Hatfield of West Virginia. I also do not mess with McCoys.
I’ve enjoyed a lifetime love affair with English teachers, just like the ones who are being abused in Charleston, West Virginia, today. My English teachers pushed me to be smart and inquisitive, and they taught me the great books of the world with passion and cunning and love. Like your English teachers, they didn’t have any money, either, but they lived in the bright fires of their imaginations, and they taught because they were born to teach the prettiest language in the world. I have yet to meet an English teacher who assigned a book to damage a kid. They take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students, but they are dishonored and unpraised because of the scandalous paychecks they receive. In my travels around this country, I have discovered that America hates its teachers, and I could not tell you why. Charleston, West Virginia, is showing clear signs of really hurting theirs, and I would be cautious about the word getting out.
In 1961, I entered the classroom of the great Eugene Norris, who set about in a thousand ways to change my life. It was the year I read “Catcher in the Rye,” under Gene’s careful tutelage, and I adore that book to this very day. Later, a parent complained to the school board, and Gene Norris was called before the board to defend his teaching of this book. He asked me to write an essay describing the book’s galvanic effect on me, which I did. But Gene’s defense of “Catcher in the Rye” was so brilliant and convincing in its sheer power that it carried the day. I stayed close to Gene Norris till the day he died. I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service and was one of the executors of his will. Few in the world have ever loved English teachers as I have, and I loathe it when they are bullied by know-nothing parents or cowardly school boards.
About the novels your county just censored: “The Prince of Tides” and “Beach Music” are two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, “Lord, this is how I found the world you made.” They contain scenes of violence, but I was the son of a Marine Corps fighter pilot who killed hundreds of men in Korea, beat my mother and his seven kids whenever he felt like it, and fought in three wars. My youngest brother, Tom, committed suicide by jumping off a fourteen-story building; my French teacher ended her life with a pistol; my aunt was brutally raped in Atlanta; eight of my classmates at The Citadel were killed in Vietnam; and my best friend was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi last summer. Violence has always been a part of my world. I write about it in my books and make no apology to anyone. In “Beach Music,” I wrote about the Holocaust and lack the literary powers to make that historical event anything other than grotesque.
People cuss in my books. People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. I’m perfectly sure that Steve Shamblin and other teachers prepared their students well for any encounters with violence or profanity in my books just as Gene Norris prepared me for the profane language in “Catcher in the Rye” forty-eight years ago.
The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in “Lonesome Dove” and had nightmares about slavery in “Beloved” and walked the streets of Dublin in “Ulysses” and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I’ve been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language.
The school board of Charleston, West Virginia, has sullied that gift and shamed themselves and their community. You’ve now entered the ranks of censors, book-banners, and teacher-haters, and the word will spread. Good teachers will avoid you as though you had cholera. But here is my favorite thing: Because you banned my books, every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots, they don’t know how the world works — but writers and English teachers do.
I salute the English teachers of Charleston, West Virginia, and send my affection to their students. West Virginians, you’ve just done what history warned you against — you’ve riled a Hatfield.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Conroy has had to defend teachers who sought to teach his works. In 1988, Conroy penned a similar letter to the editor of the Charleston, South Carolina, News and Courier, praising another teacher who had added Prince of Tides to a list of optional readings for 11th-grade AP students.
The April 1992 English Journal article “Pat Conroy’s ‘Gutter Language’: Prince of Tides in a Lowcountry High School” (please forgive the low quality of the scan please) traces the story of the book’s challenge by a local preacher who “called the book ‘raw, filthy, raunchy pornography’ and ‘garbage that would gag a maggot’” (18).
As part of his response to the Charleston censorship case, the article explains, Conroy also visited the classroom of the teacher involved in the book challenge and talked with the class about writing. Conroy told the class: “[T]o write good fiction . . . one must be willing to write the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be” (19).
As I read that line, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the same were true of teaching?” I would love to exclaim to the teachers of the world, “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and not to worry about what the public reaction will be.” Teachers must always worry about what the public reaction will be—from students, families, colleagues, administrators, school board members, and the local community.
Teaching the truth is not enough. The teacher’s mantra must be “To be a good teacher, one must be willing to teach the truth and always be ready to explain why the truth must be taught, especially in the case of the ugly and inconvenient truths of the world.”
If certain students or their families are compelled to hide from such truths, that’s their prerogative, but, as The Students’ Right to Read explains, they should not have the right to impose their will upon the larger community. Teachers have the responsibility of making sure that students’ right to read is protected.
And, in more censorship news...from Chicago...
Officials altering reading list due to parent concern
October 25, 2007
By David Schwab, The Star
Rich Township High School District 227 officials have begun pulling books that use the "n-word" from required reading lists.
According to officials, this move comes in response to parents' concerns brought up at recent school board meetings.
Donna Simpson-Leak, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, said officials are responding to these concerns -and are also considering what is best, academically, for students.
"We need to make sure (students) are exposed to African-American literature, and at the same time, we have to be cognizant that that word is an issue," she said.
So far, there have only been a few curriculum changes. John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" has been pulled. Richard Wright's "Black Boy" will only be read in selected excerpts. Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been targeted for removal, but a complicating factor is that book's use in advanced placement college-prep courses. As a result, that move has been put on hold.
Still more changes could come in the future, officials said.
School board member Melonese Brookins said texts that use the word are going to be pulled "systematically" when officials find they can replace them without sacrificing educational value.
"I think they should be pulled," Brookins said, "but I don't want the kids to lose anything that they need."
Svetlana Mintcheva, director of the arts program for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said what the district is doing "misfires."
"You're eliminating cultural memory and experience," she said.
Mintcheva said the move won't thwart the casual use of the word in school hallways, but could threaten a student's learning experience.
District 227 officials said there has been a push in recent years to bring more African-American authors into the curriculum.
So while that issue has been taken care of, "now, we have to deal with this word" that appears in some of those texts, Leak said.
Leak said she did interviews with students about the use of the "n-word" in required reading. She found that most students were able to understand the history and context of the word's usage in literature. But, this understanding didn't seem to affect their casual use of the word, she said.
Leak said removing these books is part of the district's message that the word won't be tolerated in school.
But Mintcheva said it goes too far.
"Can a few parents decide for every parent in the school (that they don't want their children reading these particular books)?" she asked.
Mintcheva said she runs into the issue of schools banning, or trying to ban, these particular texts all over the country.
She said, however, that larger issues dealing with freedom of speech usually don't erupt in these situations, as administrators have a lot of leeway when it comes to determining curriculum choices.
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about Beth Fehlbaum
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