The “State of America’s Libraries Report,” concluded that the year 2021 represented the largest number of attempted book bans in public and school libraries since the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom began tracking challenges 20 years ago.
The leading initiators of book challenges are parents, patrons, administrators, and religious and political groups. Only six percent of challenges are brought by those who actually teach books.
I’ve decided to read some of the most challenged and banned books. Many of the books are contemporary and focus on LGBTQ themes, but I started with one that is on my bookshelf and was written by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” I read the novel many years ago and didn’t remember it well, so a re-read was in order.
In the novel, Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl in 1940s America, is convinced she is ugly, and yearns to have lighter skin and blue eyes. Shirley Temple was the icon back then for what girls aspired to. Dolls were white and most had blond hair. Fed images of white superiority and beauty all of her life, self-hatred sets in.
“The Bluest Eye” consistently lands on the list of most banned and challenged books “because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit.” (State of America’s Libraries Report)
The abuse it depicts is Pecola’s father raping and impregnating her. You find this out on the first page of the novel, so there’s no surprise about the content. Yeah, it’s not stuff for kids to read—but at what age is exposure to such content appropriate?
You might say adults-only, but there’s so much language in the media today about states banning abortions without exceptions even in cases of rape and incest. Rape and incest. Incest and rape. Mommy, what do rape and incest mean? The words are everywhere. Young people are exposed and they are aware.
Shekema Silveri, a high school teacher in Georgia teaches “The Bluest Eye” in her AP English class. The language, themes, and style of the novel probably couldn’t be understood or appreciated by anyone younger, and I haven’t come across any mentions of the novel appearing in junior high or middle school curriculums (just like you never come across any school curriculums that actually include the teaching of Critical Race Theory).
Silveri told American Experience (PBS) that teaching the novel “helps us break down barriers with students. After reading the book, I had a student who said that she is the product of incest. And I’ve had a student who said that she was molested by her uncle. Books allow us to help them heal in ways that we as educators couldn’t help them heal on our own.”
Silveri went on to say:
“For the vast majority of my life I thought that straight hair or lighter eyes or lighter skin was what beauty was. It’s not just themes of incest and sexuality that are present in the novel. That theme of beauty being tied to whiteness — that’s something that we’ve been able to challenge inside the classroom.”
It makes me think that those clamoring to ban a book such as “The Bluest Eye”—even from AP English classes—are not just concerned about exposing students to the concepts of rape and incest, but are trying to eliminate books that depict the treatment of Blacks at the hand of whites, that show the stark ugliness of systemic racism.
Toni Morrison said the novel examines “how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.” She said she also grew up feeling the burden of self-hatred due to feeling inferior to white standards of beauty.
It’s a short novel, well worth reading.