Toni Morrison too violent for High School.

Via every book blogger on the web a high school in Shelby, Michigan has banned Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. The article states that “members of the community objected to its profanity, sexual references and violence.” Oh My.

The book was removed from an AP English course. I found the syllabus (a very thorough rendering of “classic” works and contemporary works) via Mark Athitakis’s blog “American Fiction Notes” But the feckless community members who began the protest either have a problem with Morrison, or have failed to read most of the western canon.

What are some of the titles left on the list?

Crime and Punishment (Not violent at all!); Paradise Lost (A sympathetic reading of Lucifer after the fall); Othello (Guy commits suicide after being tricked into killing his wife); Oedipus the King (Boy king gets left for dead, marries mother, kills father)

There may be signs of hope. According to the article, linked above, the Superintendent removed the book from the curriculum, but students can still check it out from the library. Fastest way to get teenagers to do something is to deny them access to it.

17 thoughts on “Toni Morrison too violent for High School.

  1. bitchphd May 19, 2009 at 5:56 pm Reply

    I think the logic is that the non-banned books won’t actually get read, what with the old-fashioned language and shit. That and the logic that high school kids know nothing of profanity, sex, or violence.

  2. FilthyGrandeur May 19, 2009 at 9:28 pm Reply

    this is sort of disheartening (i’m originally from michigan). i read morrison’s the bluest eye in high school.

    has anyone brought up to these protesters the violence in the other books in the curriculum? it strikes me as odd that they’re targeting morrison’s book.

    • bitchphd May 20, 2009 at 10:41 am Reply

      It’s obvious why Morrison, rather than Homer, is the author being banned. Morrison “isn’t a classic.” You know, she’s contemporary. And a woman. And black. So obviously the only reason to put her on a syllabus is political correctness, rather than educational value.

      (That’s sarcasm, just in case.)

      • Winslowalrob May 20, 2009 at 7:30 pm Reply

        But BPD, I dunno if this is the case, did you check out the syllabus? I literally cannot fathom why Morisson got singled out, but I am not going to chalk to up to intersectionality quite yet.

        • belleisa May 22, 2009 at 9:02 am Reply

          Morrison may not be a “classic,” and I totally got the sarcasm BPhD, but you ask any status quo literary academic and he or she will gladly pick Morrison’s work over Walker’s work.

          The banned book part doesn’t even bother me, perhaps it’s the lack of taste and logic.

          • Winslowalrob May 22, 2009 at 11:14 am Reply

            See, I think it has more to do with a lack of familiarity than anything else (hell, I suspect most people who banned the book think Morrison is an Italian and just never heard of songs of solomon 🙂 ). Its whatever, the kids will probably read it anyways.

  3. Winslowalrob May 19, 2009 at 10:26 pm Reply

    Damn that is a solid reading list…

    Still, this reminds of that scene in Field of Dreams… you know, the book one. I dunno how that book got singled out though, THAT is the mystery of the whole thing. Did Toni run over someones cat or something back in the day?

  4. livininphilly May 20, 2009 at 8:19 am Reply

    Did anyone notice that the quote at the beginning of the syllabus is a Toni Morrison quote? Banning books is absolutely ridiculous and makes me so angry when i hear about it. The deliberate diminishment of the freedom of expression and intellectual pursuit gets me all up in arms. For anyone interested there is a national celebration of banned books every year sometime in late september/early october. During that week there are all sorts of literary events celebrating the reading of books that have been banned in the past.

  5. Beth May 21, 2009 at 3:04 pm Reply

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it was removed, in part, because the instructors were ill-prepared to teach it. Towards the bottom of the syllabus, the sloppy comparison of the film version of “The Color Purple” with _Song of Solomon_ gives me pause and suggests a teacher that hasn’t done much work with the African American literary tradition. The syllabus says, “In each novel, the authors explore family connections and how they shape our self-image and our dealings with the rest of society. Students will compare the main characters search for self and dignity against the challenges of racism and family conflict.”

    (It would make far more sense, for example, to compare Toni Morrison’s _The Bluest Eye_–which, out of Morrison’s body of work, is the one that smart high school students could have a chance at understanding in a class that doesn’t seem to offer sufficient time to spend on any 1 text–with Alice Walker’s _The Color Purple_, as the two novels clearly resonate with one another and one could argue that Walker’s is a response to and/or an extension of Morrison’s. Any number of other comparisons of Af Am lit could have been done to more fruitful ends than that offered on the syllabus.) The comparison on the syllabus is sloppy in that it is mainly predicated on both novels being written by black women and depicting black people, and little else. What novels *don’t* deal with notions of the self, society, and family conflict? African American novels do indeed contend with issues of racism, but that issue alone does not define the African American literary tradition.

    (Oh, and above, it should say, *Song* of Solomon.)

    • belleisa May 22, 2009 at 8:58 am Reply

      Thank you for the correction.

      The shoddy comparison of Morison and Walker’s text aside, I would argue more that the absolute need to find narrative or thematic comparisons in school English courses always felt like a sham to me. The focus should be on reading for pleasure, not necessarily meaning. Reading to understand an experience different from your own. The literary connections are mostly for the development of critical thinking skills, at least that’s what been sold to me, so that schools have something to test for.

      On the African American literary tradition, I don’t remember dealing with the notion of face or racism unless it was in an African American text. That’s odd? I smell a blog post Beth…thank you for your comments.

      • Beth May 22, 2009 at 9:27 am Reply

        I have to re-think the comparison issue. I think that it is something that can happen with kids organicly after taking a few college lit courses, and that it can be useful then, but perhaps it is too forced for high school. I love to read, and I think a lot of students in English classes end up being assigned something that ends up being a favorite book, but I worry a bit on making the focus reading for pleasure. I guess that my fear is, in that case, students won’t put as much effort into their English/lit/language arts classes as they would in say, biology if they think of it as a more grown-up form of recess, and then they won’t get nearly as much out of it, either.

        Re: “On the African American literary tradition, I don’t remember dealing with the notion of face or racism unless it was in an African American text. That’s odd?”
        That’s a great point. There’s race and issues of racism all over the American lit taught in many high schools, but I don’t know if anyone is talking about it in texts by non-minority authors. It wasn’t on the table when I was in high school in the ’90s (we didn’t touch on the race issues in _Great Gatsby_, even though they’re there.) That sounds like a great post.

        I’ve read this blog for a while and really like all the area you guys cover; thanks!

      • Winslowalrob May 22, 2009 at 11:27 am Reply

        As per your last comment, I think we are on REALLY tricky ground if we start looking for ‘race’ in texts that are not black lit.

        Not because the kids are not ready for it, or that we should not PERIOD, but that there is a theoretical background that is crucial to look at this stuff that is hard as hell to teach. If one wants to argue that race pervades everything in American life through lit (meaning that we are taking an American Lit class 😦 ), then maybe you could design a course around that, but in my (VERY LIMITED) experience with the American public schooling system and how race is taught its really hard to throw it around in texts that (supposedly) do not deal with explicitly. I mean, should we start using postcolonial theory to see how Austin’s Mansfield Park (not her best work I guess) was wedded to Western Imperialism, Racism, and Slavery?

        • Beth May 22, 2009 at 3:40 pm Reply

          I wasn’t thinking of anything that involved (also, Austin is British), although it wouldn’t be impossible if that was the focus of the course.

          Rather, I’m suggesting that in some cases, it seems as if obvious moments of race aren’t covered in texts to the extent that these omissions are problematic. In _The Great Gatsby_, for example, Tom Buchanan, a character in the novel, is reading a book called _The Rise of the Coloured Empires_ by “Goddard.” This book is a play on one by Lothrop Stoddard called, _The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy_. Tom goes on and on about the need for white people to “watch out or these other races will have control of things” (17). For anyone who has read the novel, Tom is a notably unethical character, and his perspectives on race are part of that. There’s also a considerable amount of antisemitism (slurs, etc) and the racial othering of Jewish characters (references to appearance, etc). The narrator also notes that “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridege… [e]ven Gatsby could happen” after noticing a limousine “driven by a white chauffeur,” bearing “three modish Negroes” (73). In other words, the idea that anything is possible is suggested by the fact that there are black people being driven around town by a white worker.

          Discussing the above moments does not require complex theoretical frameworks. Yet, at least when I was in high school, they were not discussed at all.

          • belleisa May 22, 2009 at 4:00 pm Reply

            Although theory didn’t acheive the type of revolution it’s supporters were hoping for, part of it’s purpose was to recognize the classim, racism, and gender inequalities prevelant in language and expression. Theory was created to argue, things like intent, value. And sure some of it is over done, but there’s merit to conscious readings of text.

            It’s important to mention as Beth does the lack of African American presence in The Great Gatsby, a novel I love. In Tom and Daisy’s household, I may be wrong, I don’t even recall mention of the hired help. Which either means the Fitzgerald didn’t care to write the hired help in, or he like the narrator Nick does not see the hired help. They are so unimportant beyond their physical duties, they become invisible…unheard.

            But it’s also beneficial to see how predominantly white works respond to “otherness,” and race.

            In my defense of theory, I think I contradicted the above point of the lack of merit in forced literary comparisons in high school English courses. I’ve got to think about all of this some more. Finally…plans for the weekend.

          • Winslowalrob May 22, 2009 at 4:03 pm Reply

            I know Austin is a limey, I was just giving an example of the slippery slope stuff I think we might get into, and I just thought her example was one of the better-known ones. I am stupid, but not THAT stupid ;).

            For your overall argument, yeah, you are totally right. This stuff is there, and it does not take complex theory to notice it. However, to discuss it is a little trickier, and to complicate things, all my lit classes were full of teachers and themes that I thought were moronic (I still remember trying to convince everyone that Simon in Lord of the Flies was insane, to no avail, and that is outside of my own itnerpretations of Things Fall Apart or Crime and Punishment). I mean, I could never convince people to see things through my eyes over what many people would consider trivial interpretations, what about throwing in such a loaded topic as race? Furthermore, what about our own anachronistic readings of race and how they interact with the text? I mean, when Ben Franklin was calling Germans stupid and swarthy he was making a racist comment, but now the Germans count as white so then what? What about writings about Catholics or the Irish? If I read Heart of Darkness (which is listed), is it a racist or a racialist text? (Achebe says racist, I say niether) I still have trouble explaining to people how our current ideas of race were not the same as any given point in the past, so while these discussions might be interesting, a lot of teachers would probably be fired over such discussions for pissing off any given group. I dunno, I see this as a damned if you do-damned if you dont deal.

  6. fangirlinbondage May 22, 2009 at 12:18 am Reply

    Banning is rather harsh, but Song of Solomon is a difficult book. Which is no excuse, of course, but these books might also require some teacher training seminars or something.
    I remember in high school we read Things Fall Apart and a whole lot of bad teaching about Africa went down.

  7. Jane July 26, 2009 at 9:41 pm Reply

    As the teacher of the above-mentioned class, I will tell you I have had extensive training in teaching AP; the syllabus barely touches the surface of the issues we discuss not only with this book but with other books. Honestly – we didn’t even read or watch The Color Purple this year because 1) we ran out of time, and 2) it isn’t nearly as complex as Song, so we spent the time on the more complex novel.

    Fortunately, in a 4-3 vote, the school board did re-instate the novel back into the curriculum. Unfortunately, I have been maligned in the press, in letters to the editor and in at least two churches in the community. The issue is far from over, but I’m lucky to have a slim majority of board members who see the value in Morrison’s book.

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