Author Toni Morrison (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye is a widely acknowledged masterpiece. Its literary reputation, however, has done little to placate wannabe censors who have tried to discredit and even ban the book from schools, citing depictions of incest and child molestation as “pornographic” and “totally inappropriate” for students.
Last week, the novel came under fire in Morrison’s home state of Ohio. At a board meeting on September 10, 2013, Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar criticized The Bluest Eye as “pornographic” and called for its removal from state teaching guidelines for high school students. Terhar was outraged by the inclusion of the book on the new Federal Common Core Standard’s recommended reading list for eleventh graders. “I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anyone else’s children reading it,” Terhar said at the board meeting. Board member Mark Smith doubled-down on Terhar’s intolerance, calling the novel part of “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.”
The fact is that The Bluest Eye is an unflinching look at racism and sexual violence, written by an Ohio native who has won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (not to mention being a member of The Nation’s editorial board!).
In real-life America, an estimated 207,754 women are sexually assaulted annually, a full 44 percent of whom are under the age of 18. This pervasive sexual violence is reality for tens of thousands of students, a reality the Ohio Board of Ed is looking to whitewash with this latest censorship drive.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Terhar, challenging her argument that Morrison’s novel is “pornographic.” Instead of banning the book, the advocacy organization suggested that Ohio schools “use controversial literature as an opportunity to improve students’ critical thinking skills and to create open dialogue between students and the community.”
That’s a good suggestion, one of which we should be especially mindful during Banned Books Week, which started this past Sunday and runs through the weekend. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982, and, according to the American Library Association, there were 464 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2012, and many more go unreported.
In addition to a Virtual Read-Out, hundreds of Banned Books events are taking place this week coast to coast at bookstores, libraries, schools, community centers, parks and other public spaces. Find an event near you and join The Nation and the ACLU in standing up for Toni Morrison and telling Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar to please stop promoting the censorship of valuable works of literature.