Indiana high school students had to quit reading Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon Wednesday, because administrators were offended by its "sex, violence, and profanity." Here's why this is bullshit.
According to Cindy Marshall of Indystar.com, 11th grade AP English at Franklin High School were already halfway through the book when the school board pulled it. "I wouldn't want to expose my children to that garbage," said board member Scott Veerkamp of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, which also helped Morrison win the Nobel Prize. Veerkamp objected to the book's "descriptive sex scenes, profanity, demeaning language and suicide," and commented, "I was about as appalled as I've ever been in my life." Presumably Veerkamp has been lucky enough never to witness actual profanity, insults, or sex.
Of course, school districts and parents try to ban books all the time, but what makes this particular effort so obnoxious — and such a good illustration of why the whole idea of banning books sucks — is the remarks of those defending Song of Solomon. Marshall writes, "Millie Davis, director of communications for the Illinois-based National Council of Teachers of English, called Morrison's novels 'modern-day classics' that make you 'really think about the world.'" True. But then:
While "Song of Solomon" has passages of sex, violence and profanity, Davis noted that the book — which tells the story of a black man's attempts to unravel the mystery of his family's past — doesn't advocate that behavior, but it does tell the story of how a culture of racism and alienation could cause that kind of behavior.
Maybe Marshall is mis-paraphrasing Davis here, but this passage totally misses the point. Yes, Song of Solomon does explore the effects of racism and the legacy of slavery. But "sex, violence, and profanity" aren't the ill effects of oppression — they're parts of human life that any eleventh-grader with a brain already knows about. In fact, to say that the black characters in Song of Solomon behave especially badly because of their race is almost racist in itself. Newsflash: suicide, domestic violence, and sexual obsession happen to white people too.
I read Morrison's novel in eleventh grade (unlike the kids at Franklin, I was actually allowed to finish), and the fact that so much of it sticks with me today illustrates why students should be reading it. It's funny (see especially the scene in which baby-naming from the Bible goes terribly awry). It's both hot and chilling (see Hagar's complaint about her "hunger," and her grandmother's explanation that "she don't mean food"). Its male and female characters are equally complex and fascinating. Again, it deals intimately with issues of race and class, but it's about more than racism. Like all the best books, it's about the lives of its people — which, like actual lives, are often disturbing.
To ban books that openly discuss sex, violence, and human pain is to demand that students' reading material be less challenging, interesting, and complex than their real experiences. This is a sure-fire way to make them hate books. It's condescending to teenagers, who have surely seen more "appalling" behavior on The Hills then they'll ever read about in print. And it's insulting to artists, who are somehow blamed for writing about fucked-up people as though books created human problems. Memo to Veerkamp, the Franklin Township School Board, and anybody who thinks ripping books out of students' hands is going to make them better people: kids are going to learn about "sex, violence, and profanity" even if they don't read books like Song of Solomon. They just won't learn about great literature.
Related: Song Of Solomon