As an English teacher working in Union County public high schools for nearly 20 years, I can testify that isolated passages randomly culled from a novel have little to do with the lasting impression students retain from reading great literature. When I have taught “The Bluest Eye” in the past, it is true that some students would come to class after completing assigned pages at home and titter about certain phrases. But despite such initial discomfort, they ultimately walked away from their reading experience not scarred, but, rather with deeper insight and knowledge.
Toni Morrison presents the world at the end of the Great Depression in all of its gritty reality. Her skillful verisimilitude and symbolic prose depict a girl who is not only disenfranchised from the white population in Lorain, Ohio because of her skin color; she is also virtually a non-entity in her African American community. She is poor, ugly, and mistreated. In a time and place where Shirley Temple served as the epitome of winsome childish appeal, Pecola is not only invisible – she is reviled by all. Her self-loathing, reinforced by her culture, shapes her greatest desire – to have blue
Morrison paints a grim portrait. As an English teacher, I can attest to the fact that the author’s subject matter is only a small part of a steady diet of dismal experiences students are subjected to in their study of literature in high school. Day after day they vicariously experience suicide, persecution, poverty, starvation, blind ambition, adultery, and all other sorts of misery in works such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Antigone,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Macbeth,” “The Crucible,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and the holocaust novel “Night”. “Why is it,” my students always ask me, “that so many of the works of literature required in high school are so depressing?”
My answer to that question also addresses why it is a dangerous idea to ban titles from the high school classroom that realistically portray unsavory aspects of life. I tell my students that literature deals with universal human struggles and that while “clean and happy” sentimental or formulaic reading is highly entertaining, it often does not lead the reader to depths of thought and moments of epiphany that will enhance his or her understanding. There is a reason why works of literature survive – they deal with universal human experience. The ideas and struggles they present stand outside of culture, age, geography, and time. Such works provoke thought and connection in the reader … and such works have always been controversial.
When Jane Eyre was first published in the 19th century, one critic labeled it “An Anti-Christian Composition” and many others shared her views. Jane, a poor orphan girl, desired freedom and opportunity. Her ambition to step outside of the station in which God had placed her aroused public ire. Mark Twain’s works were banned from many libraries because of this use of vernacular (or everyday) language, which readers found “vulgar.” (Today, many object to including his Huckleberry Finn on high school reading lists because of the racist language of some of his characters.) Critics such as the parent who came to the school board, might not be aware that Twain was, in fact, a pioneer in the use of realistic language.
Twain was also one of the endless list of authors who, true to their role as artists and critics of society, sometimes alienated the public. Parents and educators must measure complaints with caution, or risk purging the classrooms of any but the most insipid, conventional works of literature.
The truth is, so much of great literature presents life in its imperfect harshness – warts and all. It deals with the struggles and pain that forge our common humanity. While today’s students live in a world that is a far cry from that of Pecola, her story and related classroom discussions and readings help young people to think deeply about important issues such as cultural standards of beauty and how they shape self-image or what the barriers are to economic opportunity in a society. In the process, if students experience outrage and disgust at Pecola’s treatment, they may gain something valuable. Like Soaphead Church, a character in the novel, who finds himself yearning to “work miracles” to help Pecola attain her coveted blue eyes, they may desire to act in an altruistic manner towards others who are demoralized or oppressed.
Ultimately, perhaps it is not isolated instances of graphic language in books such as Morrison’s that spark such controversy. Rather, the source of the discomfort they cause may be more complex, best expressed by Oscar Wilde, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” We underestimate our young people if we believe that they will be corrupted by such reading material.