“Her head lay limp in the crook of his arm and his hand reached for the hem of her dress, caught it in his fingers and gathered it up slowly…He kissed her again and at once she spoke, not a word, but a resigned and prolonged sound that gave forth a meaning of horror accepted..’Bigger… Don’t!” says Bessie, Bigger Thomas’ ‘girl,’ as he forces himself on her in his flight from the police. (Wright 198) Is this the excerpt that a parent might choose to use as evidence to keep this book from a classroom or school library? It is one of many questionable quotes and subjects that Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son, arises to the surface. This book was much more questionable when it was originally published in 1940; however the subjects of racial inequality, rape, murder, and the death penalty are still hot button topics. Native Son was one of a long list of most commonly banned books in schools and libraries. Recently, more sexually explicit and graphically violent books have come to the front line of books not allowed in children’s library collections. Some Christian and religious groups have attempted to censor and take away the freedom to access books with homosexual undertones or with vivid descriptions of such things as masturbation or magic. But where is the line drawn between cautious parents and violation of students’ constitutional rights? While slightly outdated, Wright’s Native Son is a great example of how controversial text can be used to teach history, showcase different writing methods, and initiate discussions, among other things. Literary experts against the censorship of books say that “parents are entitled to voice their views and concerns, [but] in the end the task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators,” which is an argument that any teacher could get behind in the context of broadening students’ horizons. (Bertin 18) However the other side of the argument, namely the parents of these students, has a valid point as well that cannot be forgotten in the fight of book censorship. Books such as Harry Potter attract critics that “have called the books anti-religious and demanded that they be removed from public and school libraries.” (Scales 535) Teachers need be careful not to be disrespectful to others’ views, so it is important to pay attention to these complaints.
There is an element of truth to the arguments of those for the censorship of books. Once upon a time, I was a young adult, browsing in the library for a juicy weekend read. I stumbled upon Go Ask Alice, by an anonymous author about the perils of drug abuse. It was a harrowing read for me. I felt that the content warranted that it be snuck into my house and read in secret because my parents were, and still are, quite conservative and protective of their darling daughter. They never would have approved of this book, and, to tell you the truth, the book was a little much for me to handle at that age. I didn’t understand sex, rape, drugs, or runaways; and I had been exposed to them in one of these challenged books, which is exactly why these books need to be read within the guided constructs of a classroom or under the watchful eye of a parent or librarian. Experts agree and say that “when children are exposed to books on disturbing or sensitive topics in school, the experience can open lines of communication with parents, teachers and peers.” (Bertin 19) Youth will most likely find and read these buzzed about books on their own, as I did, and it is best to equip them with the tools to face the content matter. There is validity behind the argument for banning particular books; however that just doesn’t seem to be the right action to take in the face of these touchy novels. The books under fire should become teachable moments, regardless of personal opinion.
Take, for example, Richard Wright’s Native Son. This book covers several topics that are very touchy, such as race, rape, sex, segregation, and murder, just to name a few. Native Son is written from the perspective of a young black man living in 1940’s Chicago. Rigid segregation laws have hardened Bigger Thomas, the main character, making him bitter and utterly hopeless. As he and his friend watch an airplane in the sky, he says “I could fly a plane if I had a chance,” and his friend replies, “If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane.” (Wright 14) The restrictions that the white world has placed on him make him prefer stealing and acting out in violence than working hard for minimum pay and accepting poor treatment. This book is hard to read because it reminds the reader of the pain of segregation when aftereffects continue to affect our nation today. Race is a difficult but necessary topic to discuss in classes, especially in the context of American history and social studies, both of which impact an English classroom. Parents may bristle at the thought of discussing the way white people used to treat African Americans and how it is comparable to the current race relations. Wright uses the word “nigger” several times throughout the book in ugly ways that may be offensive to some readers. This, however, is not the main controversy in Native Son. Bigger takes advantage of his ‘girl,’ Bessie, in a moment of vulnerability. He also has sex several times with her before her murder, and even though it is consensual the first few times, Wright describes it in a way that may not be classroom appropriate. He also writes several graphically violent scenes depicting gruesome murders that would be hard for some readers to digest. Bigger murders Mary, his white employer’s daughter, and then throws her body in the furnace to burn the evidence. In order to fit her body in the furnace, he “whacked at the bone with the knife. The head hung limply, the curly black hair dragging in blood. He whacked harder, but the head would not come off.” (Wright 79). This appalling detail was yet another issue that was brought to the front of the table when concerned parents asked for this book to be removed from curriculum and school libraries.
While these are valid concerns, it remains to be seen that these are all issues that are topics of discussion among students. At such a vulnerable age, rape, race relations, and sex are important items on the discussion docket. There are a lot of conflicting viewpoints and even laws about these particular subjects that need to be addressed in order to turn students into responsible citizens before they are let loose in the world. A classroom is a safe environment to start a running dialogue about topics that matter for students. Books remain an invaluable starting point for such discussions.
It could be argued that Native Son could be used in an English classroom as a study of writing styles and the effect of grammar usage and dialogue alone. Native Son is a great instance of realist writing. To quote an article on Native Son’s literary style, “[It] is a realist text that does effectively critique American class and race relations, in ways that would seem to baffle the charges of reaction and conservatism [that] more contemporary critics would level at the realist mode.” (DeCoste 130). Good examples of particular writing styles are hard enough for a teacher to find, much less ones that cover interesting topics that students will show passion about in discussion and writing. The addition of the controversial subject matter makes this an especially enticing read for young adults. How many titles on the top banned book list are bestsellers? How many of these titles shot to the top of the bestseller lists after they were under fire for censorship issues? Attempting to ban books often calls more attention to the scandalous nature of the book, circulating the main idea that is so troubling to those trying to censor it in the first place.
So is it worth it to ban access to certain books? Or is banning those novels only making them more prolific? It is hard to say whether or not banning a book will actually keep it out of children’s hands, but it is easy to see what the children will be missing out on when certain books are taken from curriculum. The National Coalition Against Censorship agrees that “literature not only sharpens language and analytical skills but also allows young people to explore the world vicariously and better understand the world around them.” (Bertin 19) The lessons found in hot button reading are irreplaceable. If a classroom was robbed of Native Son, lessons about America’s racial past and the hardships of the death penalty would certainly not be properly introduced and it would not inspire thoughtful discussions that may not have been introduced otherwise.
Well, what grade do you give it?