Through no desire of her own, Kathy McNamara came to be known as “the book banner from Banning.” Colleagues kidded her about it, but most of the time, she bristled at the joke. It just wasn’t funny. Censorship and the death of a friend never are.
Against her better judgment, McNamara, the principal at Susan B. Coombs Middle School, had removed Maya Angelou’s autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” from a required reading list.
Parents of students in the eighth-grade class where the book was introduced by teacher Deborah Bennett became so incensed over sexual references in Angelou’s stirring story of heartache and triumph that they demanded the book be banned.
McNamara still seethes at the memory of how she grudgingly complied--largely because she feared that stress brought on by the controversy was causing Bennett’s fragile health to worsen. She believes that the nastiness of the affair hastened her friend’s death. Within months of being confronted by outraged parents, Bennett, 44, died last year of lung and breast cancer.
“I swore that after that last piece of dirt was thrown on her casket, I would never again let happen to another teacher what happened to Deborah,” McNamara said. “Because of those parents, she went through hell.”
Teachers and administrators in Banning are hardly alone in facing the wrath of an increasingly vocal breed of activist parent who objects to the books children are exposed to in classrooms and school libraries. And the war on books is extending well beyond the realms of schools.
Library officials say the wave of book bannings and restrictions has never been higher and that books are merely the latest in a long line of targets that include controversial artworks funded with public money and music with provocative lyrics.
People for the American Way, a political action group formed by television producer Norman Lear (“All in the Family”), monitors book bannings from its Santa Monica headquarters. Spokesman Michael Hudson said the statistics are troubling and getting worse.
Reports of censorship in public schools increased 50% last year, Hudson said, noting that the number of incidents was the highest since the group began its annual survey 10 years ago.
Whether the issue is a photograph by the late Robert Mapplethorpe, a song called “Cop Killer” or Madonna’s picture book called, simply, “Sex,” critics and wanna-be censors have ceased to be shy. Some targets are as seemingly innocent as readers for first-graders.
“They always say the same thing,” McNamara said. “ ‘I don’t want my tax dollars paying for that trash.’ Well, the rest of us had better wake up and realize that we have tax dollars, too. Isn’t a free country worth paying for?”
Many fear that when it comes to books, librarians and school officials often do not muster the same backbone as record executives or the heads of art institutions. The result seems to be that censors often succeed in their efforts to yank a book from a shelf.
“Problem No. 1 is that librarians and school officials aren’t pulling down the same salary as the head of General Motors,” said Judith F. Krug, director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Assn. “Problem No. 2 is that people who find themselves against the wall often perceive the fight in terms of security. And any time you pit security against freedom, security wins hands down.”
The storm in Banning arose after a boy in Bennett’s class showed his mother passages from Angelou’s book regarding child molestation and rape. His mother, a member of a fundamentalist religious sect in rural Cabazon, showed another parent, who showed another and so forth.
Before long, Bennett and McNamara were at the center of a full-blown debate over books and the 1st Amendment. In the end, McNamara, who preferred to continue the fight, gave in, fearing a downturn in Bennett’s condition.
For Angelou, the writer who composed an inauguration poem for President Clinton, the incident was just the latest in many similar cases. Her first and most popular work has been banned in classrooms and libraries throughout the country.
In Raleigh, N.C.; Bremerton, Wash.; Lafayette, La., and Strong, Me., the complaint was much the same. The book, critics say, contains “explicit passages” and has no place in a school curriculum. The story is based on a sexual assault perpetrated against Angelou as a child, which rendered her mute for almost a decade.
“If you read parts of it out of context, it can cause great concern,” said Banning’s acting school superintendent, Larry Phelps. “We don’t want to have any material that’s offensive to people. So we held it out.”
Material that’s offensive to people seems to be the common refrain heard from officials explaining why they restricted access to books, ranging from classics by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway to Dr. Seuss and even the Bible.
The American Library Assn. recorded more than 653 “incidents of attempted censorship” in 1992, but only 15% of such efforts ever “see the light of day, meaning they’re reported to us or they’re covered by the media,” Krug said.
Krug’s office recorded a 28% increase in attempted censorship between 1991 and 1992. She expects 1993 statistics to be higher, with most complaints coming from fundamentalist religious groups.
But book banning is hardly the province of right-wing extremists. Never before have groups as dissimilar as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition lobbied so fiercely for changes to school curricula or the membership of library boards, or tried so aggressively to make outlaws out of books.
The practice is as old as words on paper. The American Library Assn. has compiled a list of books banned from 387 BC to the present and notes the following objections: J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” (excess vulgar language), Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (racist), Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” (full of religious bias), Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” (offensive and obscene passages referring to abortion) and Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (full of sacrilege).
Recent entries include one book in the popular “Where’s Waldo?” series and even “Snow White,” which can be read in Jacksonville, Fla., public schools only with parental permission. The school superintendent agreed with a committee of parents and teachers that the classic fairy tale is “violent.”
“If ‘Snow White’ can be restricted, nothing is beyond reach,” said Robert O’Neil of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression at the University of Virginia.
“Where’s Waldo?” was banned from a Long Island school library because hidden among the hundreds of tiny figures crammed onto the “beach page” is a woman with a breast partially exposed. The breast is about the size of the lead tip of a pencil.
And in Erie, Pa., the mother of a ninth-grader last week protested after teachers used black felt-tip markers to delete passages about apes’ mating habits from naturalist Dian Fossey’s book “Gorillas in the Mist.” The school’s principal said he permitted teachers to black out the passages, anticipating parents’ concerns.
The reasons for banning books often defy belief. The Alabama State Textbook Committee once called for the rejection of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a young girl’s story of the horror of the Holocaust, because, in its words, “it is a real downer.”
But there are some success stories when it comes to warding off would-be censors. In Cumberland County, N.C., fundamentalist groups recently demanded that two books about homosexual lifestyles be ousted from the shelves of the local library. Despite threats to defeat a library’s bond measure, the head librarian stood his ground--and the measure passed.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., after the head of the library canceled the order for Madonna’s “Sex” book, voters defeated his library bond measure.
But in Carson City, Nev., the State Board of Education met recently to determine whether Rolling Stone magazine should be banned from school libraries because, critics say, it sends the wrong message to young people. They are still undecided.
Just about everywhere, the figures of such incidents are climbing.
In the People for the American Way’s survey of attempted book censorship in schools for 1991-1992, the Midwest region recorded the highest number--119 cases. The Northeast had the fewest of any region, 59. Florida, with 34 incidents, reported more than any other state. California and Texas were next with 27 each.
But 1991-92 also produced what Hudson called a “new and far more disturbing trend": almost an equal number of challenges to books in libraries, which before have often eluded the censors’ grasps.
“We’re talking books no one was made to read,” he said. “Textbooks usually are required reading. We think it’s bad and getting worse, and anyone who cares about democracy ought to wake up and do something about it.”
But caring about democracy and doing something about it is precisely their intent, say the groups trying to control the content of public education and stem the tide of popular culture, much of which they find offensive.
“There is a place for censorship . . . for security reasons, or because something is inappropriate,” said Robert Simonds of the National Assn. of Christian Educators, based in Santa Ana.
“There was a time when censorship was used to protect the public good,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a Christian legal foundation. “Today, certain groups are using (the charge of censorship) as a way to beat back decent people who want to see some sort of moral standards in the classroom.”
Even Krug of the American Library Assn., which finds itself pitted against such religious conservative groups, said: “So much within our society is so offensive nowadays that, every once in a while, I have to pinch myself and say: ‘No, I’m sorry, he does have the right to say that, even though I personally find it disgusting.’ ”
For example, “American Psycho,” a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, offended Krug with “language that some have construed as a blueprint for female torture.” She was equally bothered by crude and provocative photographs in Madonna’s “Sex.”
But Krug believes that books that elicit widespread curiosity belong in public libraries, regardless of whom they offend. Of “Sex,” she said: “Any book that sells 850,000 copies, and which is legally obtainable, should be in libraries across the country.”
Although liberal groups are becoming increasingly vocal, many cite the religious right and three groups with California ties--James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, which began in Pomona but is now stationed in Colorado; the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition, based in Anaheim, and Simonds’ Christian education movement--for waging a war on books.
The three organizations gained national attention by opposing the “Impressions Series,” reading books that were challenged in schools nationwide--but particularly in California--two years ago.
A nationwide preemptive effort is being waged against two books that conservative groups say promote homosexual lifestyles and are inappropriate for public schools.
“Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate” feature illustrations of gay couples and are listed among hundreds of books on a suggested multicultural bibliography for New York City public schoolteachers. So far, no teacher has used the books, but that did not stop the issue of restricting classroom discussion of homosexuality from becoming a factor in last week’s hotly contested New York school board elections.
Sheldon said that in his eyes “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate” are to “public education what gays in the military will be to Mr. Clinton. They bring God-fearing people together in a noble crusade.”
Paul L. Hetrick, spokesman for Focus on the Family, said many parents have a feeling of “being utterly fed up with the mess in our public schools.” Books, he said, are “just one of the tools” in an ongoing “civil war.”
The growth of fundamentalist challenges to books and curricula are “rooted in a tug of war for the mind of the child--the child in America,” Hetrick said, a view many seem eager to endorse.
A radical change occurred about 15 years ago when complaints took on an added texture: the isms . Ageism, sexism, racism. Those concerns were voiced largely by liberals, who began to question some classics, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as being out of step with contemporary mores. The pendulum began to swing back during the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Almost immediately after 1980, the American Library Assn. recorded a fivefold increase in demands for censorship.
Will having a Democrat in the White House have a reverse effect? Many believe that President Clinton’s support for higher taxes, abortion rights and gays in the military may mobilize the right even more. As pressure builds on school districts and library boards, will those in charge stand for something or fall for anything?
As Phelps, Banning’s acting school superintendent, put it: “We didn’t object (to Maya Angelou’s autobiography) as much as eight to 10 of our parents did. And when it came right down to it, we just didn’t care to fight about it.
“As school administrators, we’re not in the business of making people mad. It could have been a major fireball, but we didn’t want a fireball,” he said. “Is one little book really worth all that?”
Here are some of the books banned at various times from schools and libraries in the United States and the reasons given by their opponents:
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
* Removed from a Banning, Calif., eighth-grade class in 1991-92 after several parents complained about explicit passages involving child molestation and rape.
* Rejected as required reading for a gifted ninth-graders’ English class in Bremerton, Wash., in 1990 because of the book’s graphic depiction of molestation.
* Challenged at Mt. Abram Regional High School in Strong, Me., in 1988 because parents objected to a rape scene.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain
* Temporarily pulled from Portage, Mich., classrooms in 1991 after some black parents complained that their children were uncomfortable with the book’s portrayal of blacks.
* Removed from the required list in the Rockford, Ill., public schools in 1988 because the book contains the word nigger.
* Removed from a required reading list and school libraries in Caddo Parish, La., in 1988 because of passages deemed racially offensive.
* Challenged in the Plano, Tex., Independent School District in 1990 on grounds of racism.
“Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck
* Removed from the Suwannee, Fla., High School library in 1991 after claims that the book is indecent.
* Challenged at a Jacksboro, Tenn., high school because the novel contains language labeled blasphemous, and because of profanity and sexual overtones.
“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown
* Removed in Wild Rose, Wis., in 1974 by a district administrator who claimed the book was slanted, saying: “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?”
“The Prince of Tides,” by Pat Conroy
* Removed as a reading assignment for an advanced English class at the St. Andres Parish, S.C., public school in 1988 after claims that it is “trashy pulp pornography.”
“As I Lay Dying,” by William Faulkner
* Banned in the Graves County School District in Mayfield, Ky., in 1986 because of claims it contained “offensive and obscene passages referring to abortion and used God’s name in vain.” The decision was reversed a week later.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
* Purged from the book list for use at the Wasco, Calif., Union High School in 1986 because the book, by the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, was said to be “garbage being passed off as literature.”
* Removed from the advanced English placement reading list at St. John’s High School in Darlington, S.C., in 1990 because of profane language.
“Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger
* Banned from classrooms in Boron, Calif., High School in 1989 because the book contains profanity.
* Banned from a required sophomore English reading list at Napoleon, N.D., High School in 1987 after parents and the local Knights of Columbus chapter complained about its profanity and sexual references.
Source: American Library Assn.