English Journal Article May 2022 - NCTE

For example, the Newbery Medal-winning graph­ic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft, a story that calls attention to the ways in which virtually everyone is made to feel like an outsider at some point in their lives, was temporarily removed from bookshelves in a Texas school district after a parent alleged that it promotes critical race theory. Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give have been challenged on similar grounds. In Florida, a school board member filed a police report alleging that George M. Johnson’s critically acclaimed collection of essays, All Boys Aren’t Blue, violated a state obscenity law, and a parent in a school district near Houston sought to have Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel Drama removed from an elementary school library because it features a kiss between same—sex characters. In Virginia, Toni Morrison’s Beloved became a flashpoint in the 2021 gubernatorial election after a Fairfax County parent who had led a campaign to remove the book from the high school curriculum appeared in a political ad supporting the Republican candidate. More recently, a Tennessee school district removed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the author’s Jewish parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, from the curriculum. Book burnings ensued.

Some conservative White parents justify their desire to remove books from school curricula by arguing that their children should not be made to feel guilty for atrocities they did not commit. They have found support among some elected officials, as is the case in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis champions legislation that would prohibit public schools from discomfiting White students when they learn about our nation’s past. This, however, confuses the question. The point is not whether contemporary White people contributed directly to the institution of slavery, or championed Jim Crow laws that legalized segregation, or deprived African American people of privileges the GI Bill bestowed upon White veterans, or engaged in redlining, or condemned Japanese Americans to internment camps, or deprived members of the LGBTQ+ community of the right to marry the person they love, or contributed to the long-term genocide of Indigenous peoples. Rather, the point is that White people, including the authors of this essay, are still the beneficiaries of racist institutions and systems that are responsible for those atrocities and that continue to create unequal life opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), members of the LGBTQ+ community, peoples from religious or ethnic minorities, and individuals who are differently abled.

Many of us believe that reading literature which invites us to imagine how other people experience the effects of these oppressive systems, or which challenges us to interrogate our complicity (willing or otherwise), can foster the type of self-reflection that offers us the opportunity to do (and be) better. The question for us is thus, How should we respond to conservative White parents who challenge the merit of books we invite our students to read in a way that addresses their concerns while also helping them to understand our rationale for teaching those books?

As we mentioned, we are both White, cisgender, heterosexual educators; we have also devoted our professional lives to the teaching of English. A former high school teacher, Sean has taught at racially, ethnically, and economically diverse high schools throughout his career, and for the past eleven years, he has taught courses on literacy, English education, and young adult literature at a public university in a politically conservative state. Roberta has been a professor for more than thirty years at a public university in a politically liberal state. In addition to teaching English, we are both lifelong readers with a profound appreciation for the role that literature can play in allowing us to experience life from the perspective of characters and authors who do not share our identities and sociocultural backgrounds. Because our students often report that they struggle to identify with and connect to literature they are asked to read for school, we also aspire to help them find books they connect with and which offer them opportunities to learn more about other people, as well as themselves.

For both of us, it is equal parts painful and maddening to watch our fellow educators be disparaged in the media and threatened at local school board meetings. We are also disturbed by the coordinated effort that some political operatives have made in weaponizing critical race theory to elicit fear in parents privileged by the dominant culture, fear that too often propels these White parents to challenge books that we, as literacy educators, know foster empathy and cross-cultural understanding. This stoking of the culture wars is not motivated by any concern for young people; rather, these operatives seek only political gain. At the same time, we understand that in many cases, White conservative parents who question the merit of books that teachers invite students to read do so not out of malice, but rather from a genuine sense of concern for their children. With that in mind, we decided to conduct a thought experiment in which we imagined ourselves in conversation with such parents to understand how we, as literacy educators, can acknowledge their concerns while also helping them to understand our rationale for teaching multicultural books. We do not pretend to have found a final answer to this complex question. Rather, we offer a list of talking points that we found ourselves returning to during our imagined conversations. (Also see the sidebar for a list of questions that may facilitate such discussions.)

Talking Point 1: Arguments which assume that adults are obliged to shield children from certain kinds of knowledge and content are premised on an outmoded understanding of children as “innocent.” In 1689, John Locke wrote “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” Although he never used the phrase tabula rasa in that essay, he did describe children’s ability to learn as an accretive process. Jean-Jacques Rousseau brought this concept of being based in childhood innocence into the beginnings of the Romantic era with his educational treatise Emile, or On Education.

People indoctrinated into thinking of children as innocent, as most Americans are, still adhere to this notion that children are born innocent, gradually gain knowledge, and eventually lose that innocence. By this logic, parents are meant to preserve and protect that state of innocence for as long as possible. But anyone who has taught school-aged children knows that children are typically so inquisitive that they are rarely innocent of knowledge about, for example, sex and sexuality.

When Roberta asks her students when they began to be interested in sexuality, suburban students describe using Barbie dolls to perform imaginative sex acts or a prurient interest in certain books between the ages of seven and nine. Students from agrarian areas usually don’t remember when they learned about procreation, since they’ve witnessed animals mating their whole lives. “Why then,” she asks both types of students, “do you continue to believe that children are innocent?” They ruefully admit that they do not know why they cling to that belief. Similarly, Sean’s students recently discussed gaining the same type of sexual knowledge—­in some cases, as early as the age of seven—­and they, too, had the same sheepish sense of self-reckoning.

Talking Point 2: Paradoxically, underlying the Romantic/Rousseauian logic discussed in the preceding paragraph is an assumption that MY child is innocent, even though I was not as a kid. Throughout our conversations with each other, we continually returned to questions far more culturally specific than those about human sexuality. How old were you when you learned about racism? Or the Holocaust? Or the wholesale massacre of Native Americans? Roberta attended a desegregated school in 1968 and could not understand why Black students in her first-grade classroom were so angry. She did not know that they had been on the school bus for an hour or more before arriving at school, and no adult in her life ever mentioned the injustice that necessitated desegregation in the first place. Her next-door neighbors had an uncle with a tattoo from Auschwitz on his arm, so she learned about the Holocaust before she even started kindergarten. And yet, she was neither emotionally stunted nor intellectually delayed because of that experience; in fact, quite the opposite. She had developed a strong sense of justice by the age of seven. That sense of justice led her to seek out novels about racial injustice in third grade, such as Mary Jane by Dorothy Sterling; when many of her sixth-grade classmates were reading Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl for Hebrew school, she read it along with them as an eleven-year-old.

As for Sean, he witnessed an argument that involved a second-grade classmate calling another student a “faggot” on the playground. Although Sean had not encountered the word before, he instinctively knew—­by the vitriol with which it was spoken—­that the speaker intended the slur to be particularly hurtful. Sadly, it was a slur he would continue to hear all too frequently as he progressed through school, especially in locker rooms, where boys can feel a heightened pressure to prove their masculinity. In eighth grade, when he read Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, he was profoundly troubled by a scene in which the protagonist, a ninth grader who is bullied by teachers and classmates for refusing to conform to group expectations, has that same slur hurled at him by a classmate who is challenging the protagonist’s masculinity solely to provoke him into a fistfight.

Years later, Sean still remembers the anger he felt reading that scene, and how, upon finishing the book, he decided never to use that word and to speak up when other people did. How many children are truly innocent by the time they leave middle school? And how many more have developed empathy and understanding because they witnessed (or read about) an injustice that stirred their social conscience?

Talking Point 3: It is also important to note that maturation is not a uniform developmental process. When parents decide to challenge a book, they often do so on the grounds that the book is not appropriate for children in a specific age range. Sean, for example, was once approached by parents who expressed concern that asking students in an eleventh-grade American literature class to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was inappropriate, given the weighty subject matter and complex themes the book addresses.

However, it is important to note how this argument essentializes a whole group of people based solely on their age. It is true that some sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds may not be emotionally prepared to process this admittedly challenging book, but others are, and they should not be denied access to it based solely on their age—­or the developmental stage of one student in their class. That type of ageism is yet another form of discrimination.

We do not question the right of parents who have deep knowledge of their child to determine what that child reads. We do, however, take exception to the idea that individual parents have a right to deprive other people’s children of access to books they deem inappropriate for their own child. Thus, in Sean’s case, he worked with the parents who approached him to ensure that their child was able to read a different book and complete a corresponding set of assignments while the rest of the class read Morrison’s novel.

Talking Point 4: It is also worth noting that those arguments which advocate protecting children from certain kinds of knowledge and content are often made from a position of privilege. Recognizing this, educators can ask exactly which children cultural critics have in mind when they advocate protecting youth from books that address difficult topics. Are these cultural critics or White parents, for example, thinking of African American teenagers who have no choice but to attend underfunded and under-resourced schools? Or immigrant children whose parents live under the threat of deportation? Are they imagining children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse, or who are exposed to some form of addiction at home, or whose families struggle in poverty? Or, more likely, are these critics concerned about children whose privileged social and economic standing has sheltered them from life’s unpleasant realities?

Those of us who teach at public schools or universities understand that many of our students are not so fortunate, and we argue they have a right to see their experiences represented in books they read as well.

Talking Point 5: As it turns out, reading literature improves our capacity for empathy and understanding. This will come as no surprise to those English teachers who, like us, have long suspected that was the case. However, research in the field of psychology offers strong evidence in support of that outcome. A 2013 article by Annie Murphy Paul, for example, summarized research studies which found that people who read fiction on a regular basis were “better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.” Likewise, a 2014 study found “that elementary school and high school students in Italy and the United Kingdom became more empathic toward immigrants, refugees, and gay and lesbian people after reading Harry Potter” (Schmidt). To explain this finding, the research team noted that the Harry Potter stories are set in a world that is characterized by rigid social hierarchies that force some of the characters to experience different forms of discrimination.

In Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Keith Oatley examines research in the field of neuroscience which suggests that the human brain does not differentiate between real experiences and virtual experiences. Instead, when we read a story about a character who experiences bullying or discrimination, we respond at a neurobiological level as though we were witnessing an actual person being bullied or discriminated against—­just as Sean felt in eighth grade. In short, far from suggesting that White children and teenagers are adversely affected by reading books about characters who experience racism or sexism or heterosexism or ableism, empirical research suggests that their ability to empathize with and understand other people improves, an outcome that we would hope all parents want for their children.

Talking Point 6: Removing antiracist literature or books that address LGBTQ+ topics from school curricula and school libraries on the grounds that these books could potentially lead some White, heterosexual students to feel uncomfortable ignores the obvious fact that Black, Brown, and Indigenous parents, as well as LGBTQ+ parents, also have school-aged children. Thus, they have a right to expect that their children have opportunities to learn about their own histories in school. And as we’ve argued, White children benefit from reading about characters from other racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds as well. Indeed, the kind of perspective-taking that occurs when children and teenagers read a balance of what Rudine Sims Bishop calls “window books” and “mirror books” is reflective of a uniquely American sentiment. That is, if, as has traditionally been assumed, public schools are crucial to the preservation of a democratic society, then it only makes sense that teachers should strive to offer students access to multiple perspectives about important historical events and social topics.

By engaging in this kind of perspective-taking, students are better able to comprehend how other people understand and experience those historical events and social topics. Equally important, they are better prepared to make informed, conscious decisions as to whether they wish to reproduce discriminatory policies and practices that have been, or are, injurious to other people.

In closing, we both believe that the efforts we are witnessing to ban books that address race and racism, or that feature LGBTQ+ people, or that interrogate unpleasant truths about our country’s past or present are motivated in part by some adults’ desire to withhold knowledge and information from children and teenagers. With that in mind, we return to the question we posed in the title of this essay: What happens when knowledge is deferred? Perhaps not surprisingly, as English teachers and readers, we looked to literature for an answer to that question, and we found one in the work of Lois Lowry, who explored a similar question in a novel she wrote for young readers decades ago that, appropriately enough for the purposes of this essay, has also been a target of censors.

As many readers of this article probably know, The Giver is set in a future society that has found a way to erase unpleasant knowledge and memories that would otherwise lead its citizens to experience extreme psychological and emotional distress. Yet because they are ignorant of their individual and collective histories, they are able to do terrible things. For example, Jonas, the book’s twelve-year-old protagonist, knows his father to be a compassionate, gentle, and decent person who loves his children deeply. As Jonas eventually learns, however, his father’s job requires him to terminate the lives of elderly people and infants who are perceived as deficient. He can do this only because he doesn’t have to bear the weight of that knowledge. After the Giver shares his knowledge of the community’s history, Jonas elects to run away, knowing full well that his actions will unleash a torrent of painful memories that will cause his family, friends, and neighbors to suffer. However, he reasons that the knowledge they will gain of their wrongdoings is worth the cost of suffering they will experience, as it will permit them to avoid perpetuating those wrongdoings in the future.

We argue that the stakes for contemporary White, heterosexual, temporarily abled Americans are no less significant than those at play in The Giver. Like the Giver, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and differently abled authors occupy social positions that enable them to share their knowledge of oppressive social structures and systems that members of the dominant group may be unaware of because they don’t experience them. As is the case for Jonas and the members of his community, coming into such knowledge is uncomfortable, painful even. However, if we are willing to listen to the stories these writers have to share with us, we may find that our perspectives are broadened. Confronted with new knowledge, we can ask whether we wish to perpetuate oppressive structures and systems, or whether we would prefer to contribute to the work of dismantling them.

When Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun in the 1950s, she was remarkably prescient. In the play, Lena Younger, who is African American, uses insurance money she acquires following her husband’s death to purchase a home in a White suburban community near Chicago. Toward the end of the play, a representative from the community association approaches Lena and her family with an offer to buy their new home to prevent the Youngers from moving into the community. Lena refuses; the Youngers will move to this neighborhood that emblematizes upward mobility. By demonstrating how residential zoning laws function to produce and uphold racial segregation, Hansberry calls readers’ and theatergoers’ attention to what critical race theorists today would argue are the ways in which racism is inscribed in our nation’s social structures and systems, even from a time long before the GI Bill enacted such practices into law.

Yet despite any advancements African Americans experienced due to the Civil Rights Movement, this remains the case today, some sixty years later. One reason for that, we argue, is that White people have traditionally chosen to defer having the hard but necessary conversations we need to have to reckon with the consequences and legacies of our country’s racist past. Sadly, as is evidenced by the book banning movement we are currently witnessing, some White adults would prefer to continue putting those difficult conversations off. Like the characters in Lowry’s novel, in doing so, they condemn themselves to perpetuate racist, ableist, and heterosexist policies and practices for which they claim to have no responsibility. Depriving the current generation of children and teenagers of the knowledge they need to have the difficult conversations their elders have chosen to put off is yet one more racist atrocity in the long US history of deferring the dreams of those who yearn for a more just and equitable society.

Works Cited

Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Perspective, vol. 6, no. 3, 1990, ix–­xi.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974.

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. Harper Collins, 2019.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. Doubleday, 1952.

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Random House, 1959.

Hughes, Langston. Montage of a Dream Deferred. Henry Holt, 1951.

Johnson, George M. All Boys Aren’t Blue. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1689. Penguin, 1997.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Knopf, 1987.

—­—­—­. The Bluest Eye. 1970. Plume, 1994.

Oatley, Keith. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Paul, Annie Murphy. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” Time, 3 June 2013, ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile, or On Education. 1763. Basic Books, 1979.

Schmidt, Megan. “How Reading Fiction Increases Empathy and Encourages Understanding.” Discover, 28 Aug. 2020, www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-reading-fiction-increases-empathy-and-encourages-understanding.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. Pantheon, 1991.

Sterling, Dorothy. Mary Jane. Doubleday, 1959.

Telgemeier, Raina. Drama. Graphix, 2012.

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer and Bray, 2017.

Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. Puffin Books, 2014.

 

AUTHORS

Sean P. Connors is associate professor of English education at the University of Arkansas and has been a member of NCTE since 2010. His scholarship and teaching focus on the application of diverse critical perspectives to young adult literature. Readers can email Sean at sconnors@uark.edu.

Roberta Seelinger Trites is Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, where she has taught children’s and adolescent literature since 1991. Her most recent book is Twenty-First-Century Feminisms in Children’s and Adolescent Literature (2018). Readers can email her at seeling@ilstu.edu.

 

READWRITETHINK CONNECTION
Lisa Storm Fink, RWT
It is important for young people to understand their individual rights and what they, as citizens, can do to protect these rights. In addition, young people need to understand the way bias and stereotyping
are used by the media to influence popular opinion. In this lesson, students examine propaganda and media bias and explore a variety of banned and challenged books, researching the reasons these books have been censored. Following this research, students choose a side
of the censorship issue and support their position through the development of an advertising campaign.
Censorship in the Classroom

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