Written in 1982 by Alice Walker, The Color Purple tells the story of black life during the 1930s in the Southern United States from a female’s perspective. The Pulitzer Prize winning (1983) novel is told in the form of diary entries and correspondence letters over a 30-year period, following Celie Johnson as she struggles through life. What unfolds is a heart-wrenching story of neglect and abuse.
So how can a touching and heartfelt story, admired by millions, be at the mercy of the censor’s axe? The list of charges includes homosexuality, offensive language, and being sexually explicit.
Nearly every year since its publication it has made headlines for literary merit; yet those merits have been shadowed by challenges in schools and academic institutions in numbers I have rarely seen. Since beginning this Awareness series I have never found a book so widely challenged that I had to leave out incidents to discuss because there were just too many to choose from. Pick a year and pick a town and you’re sure to find a case. Here’s just a few.
In 1984 it was decided that an Oakland, California high school honors class was not intellectually mature enough to study the work due to its “sexual and social explicitness, and troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” A divided Oakland Board of Education finally gave its approval for the book’s use after 9 months of squabbling.
In 1985 it was rejected for purchase by a Hayward, California school’s trustee because of “rough language” and “explicit sex scenes.”
The book was also removed from the shelves of the Newport News, Virginia school library in 1986 because of its “profanity and sexual references”, and was made accessible only to students over 18, or who had written permission from a parent.
1989 public libraries in Saginaw, Michigan saw its removal; as did a summer youth program assignment in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In the 1990’s it was challenged as optional reading in Ten Sleep, Wyoming schools; and disputed at the New Burn, North Carolina High School because the main character is raped by her stepfather; it was also permanently banned in the Souderton, Pennsylvania School District because it is, according to one administrator, “smut.”
Pomperaug High School in Southbury, Connecticut banned it in 1995 because sexually explicit passages “aren’t appropriate high school reading.” Later that year it was challenged and retained in a Junction City, Oregon high school after months of controversy. Although an alternative assignment was available at the time, the book was still challenged due to language, graphic sexual scenes, and the book’s “negative image of black men.”
Challenged, and eventually retained, at the St. Johns County Schools in St. Augustine, Florida, the Round Rock, Texas Independent High School, and the Northwest High Schools in High Point, North Carolina because it was seen as to explicit and violent.
The Jackson County, West Virginia school libraries removed it in 1997 along with sixteen other titles. The Shawnee School in Lima, Ohio had its turn in 1999 after several parents described its content as “vulgar and X-rated.”
You would think the new millennium would have seen the end to such Dark Age thinking, but in 2002, a Fairfax County, Virginia group called Parents Against Bad Books in Schools challenged it along with seventeen other titles. Burke County schools in Morgantown, North Carolina bowed to parental pressure in 2008 over concerns about the homosexuality, rape, and incest portrayed in the book.
Perhaps it’s due to guilt over a dark period in our nation’s development; or perhaps it’s the realization that despite all of our technological achievements, the sort of depravity depicted in the novel is still alive and well in 21st century society.
We have a shared duty, not just in the roles of writer and reader, but as an intelligent species, to maintain a level of integrity and accuracy with regards to academic pursuits. As Mark Twain once said, “The man who does not read books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
How can silencing the intellectual discussion of rape, incest, violence, and racism be of any service to its victims? Placing these themes in the context of outside characters helps to convey a sense of understanding, and provide comfort in the knowledge that these experiences are not unique.
No one is claiming that it be used as a bedtime story for a 5-year-old, but unless you’ve raised your child in a bubble with the belief that a complex, multi-faceted world doesn’t exist beyond the end of the street, these are subjects that should and need to be dealt with; and by high school a student should have enough intellectual and psychological development to not only deal with it, but to analyze it with logic and reasoning for its artistic and social relevance. That’s all part of learning how to think, act, and live as an adult.
Sources: American Library Association, writing.com, Yahoo news
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions
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