MAXWELL: Before you ban a book, try reading it

3/20/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Here we go again. Parents are upset with language or a specific word in the books their children are reading at school. This time, as in many other instances nationwide, the offender is the N-word.
Darryl and Alytrice Brown, who are black, want Mildred Taylor’s novel, The Land, and Vicki Grove’s novel, The Starplace, removed from the accelerated reading list at Turner Elementary School in Tampa. Their daughter, 11-year-old Ashyaa, who is in the gifted program, complained that both books contain the N-word.
In their misguided effort to protect their daughter from a word, these parents would deprive every child at Turner Elementary, now and in the future, of the opportunity to read these two excellent novels. I read both three years ago when I wrote about an attempt in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to remove the novel Summer of My German Soldier from a 10th-grade reading list.
As in many other instances nationwide, the Browns have not read the books in question. The stark irony here, at least to me, is that 44-year-old Darryl Brown is a doctoral student in education at the University of South Florida.
As a former college teacher, a journalist and a parent and grandparent, I am personally familiar with the use of the N-word in literature for children and young adults. I have never seen a case in which parents were justified in wanting an approved book outlawed. In every case I am familiar with, parents or complaining organizations failed to understand the historical context and the utility of using the N-word and other terms designated as being objectionable.
Instead of helping children appreciate the literary value of books and apprehend the intellectual and social nuances of life around them as expressed in books, parent-generated controversies often confuse children, giving them distorted views of reality.
In The Land, Taylor, who is black, explores racism during and after the Civil War in the Deep South. Paul-Edward Logan, son of a white plantation-owner father and a slave mother, is the narrator. He is determined to buy land and shape his own life no matter what.
“Caught between black and white worlds and not fitting into either one is devastating to Paul-Edward, but his powerful, engaging tales of love of family, the strength of friendship, and growing up will inspire anyone to dare to persevere despite terrible odds,” one critic writes.
The Browns, obviously, are not inspired by Paul-Edward’s perseverance. They are focused instead on the use of the N-word.
Taylor, who has several award-winning children’s books to her credit, has written about her use of the epithet: “I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language is painful and life was painful for many African-Americans, including my family. I remember the pain.”
In The Starplace, Grove, who is white, tells a heart-warming story about the friendship between the white character Frannie, the narrator, and the black character Celeste. Frannie, 13, never thought much about the color of her skin until Celeste moved to the Oklahoma town in 1961 and attended Frannie’s school.
When the girls are chosen for a special vocal ensemble, they become inseparable friends. Many other people, including children and adults, cannot accept integration, and Frannie discovers a dark secret from the town’s past that challenges her friendship with Celeste. Just before Celeste’s first day at school, Frannie says, “Several people who came out to do ranch business with my dad today asked him if that nigger girl was really going to my school.”
The Starplace is an inspiring narrative about friendship across the racial divide. Its use of the N-word is an indictment of the ignorance and hatred that defined the South. It is not intended to insult blacks in any way. In the story, it affirms Celeste’s dignity.
Not using the N-word, or using a euphemism instead, would destroy the intense realism of Grove’s message. Children’s Literature Review stated that The Starplace “is a wonderful look at the time just after the Supreme Court decision that was supposed to make segregation history.”
Granted, the N-word is offensive to most black parents. But authors such as Taylor and Grove must be permitted to use it in crafting tales that capture authenticity of plot, character and time period.
Only through realistic language – even use of the N-word – can most children appreciate the burden of history and learn valuable lessons.