Last October, a parent at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina asked the local school board to remove Isabel Allende’s internationally-renowned The House of the Spirits from the curriculum. After making its way through a multi-step county review process, last week the school board voted 3-2 to uphold the teaching of the book.
The fight to keep the book in the curriculum was backed by many supporters – including the author herself. In a letter to the Watauga County Board of Education, Isabel Allende wrote,
Banning books is a common practice in police states, Like Cuba or North Korea…but I did not expect it in our democracy.
PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan also spoke out against censorship to the school board. In his letter, Keegan wrote:
We trust that as educators you will uphold the right of all students in Watauga County to receive a competitive, rigorous education free from censorship. While individual parents have every right to decline reading material for their own children, they should not be allowed to censor the curricula for all students in the county.
The House of the Spirits is not the first book PFAW Foundation has fought to protect. In addition to speaking out about Allende’s novel, in the past year PFAW Foundation has advocated against censorship attempts aimed at Invisible Man, Neverwhere, and The Bluest Eye.
When the teaching of Isabel Allende’s internationally renowned novel The House of the Spirits was challenged in a North Carolina school district last month, advocates from all corners spoke out in its defense, including PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan and North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. Now, Isabel Allende herself has joined the conversation.
Yesterday the School Library Journal reported that Allende has mailed a letter, along with copies of her book, to the Watauga County school board, superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School.
After acknowledging that being in the position of defending her own book is “unusual and awkward,” Allende points out in her letter that The House of the Spirits is “considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades.” She expresses concern about the practice of book censorship in general:
Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.
Allende’s letter comes as the book undergoes a multi-step review process in the county. Last month an advisory committee comprised of teachers, students, and parents voted unanimously not to remove the book from the curriculum, but that decision has been appealed.
Last week after hearing about the ban, PFAW Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to Randolph County school board members urging them to reverse their decision. Area media outlets documented the local, national, and even international response.
The board listened to the outcry. The Courier-Tribune reports that yesterday evening, the Randolph County Board of Education voted 6-1 to reinstate the book to school libraries in the county. At the meeting, some board members reflected on their changing perspectives about censorship and constitutional liberties:
Lambeth said since the last meeting he had listened to other viewpoints and still was concerned about the book’s content and protection of students, but realized that the decision was about a child’s First Amendment rights and educational values, not his personal perspective.
Board member Tracy Boyles said he had wondered as he drove home from the last meeting whether he had made the right decision….He also reflected on his son being in the Air Force and ‘in war twice.…He was fighting for these rights. I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.’
Fighting censorship has long been a priority of People For the American Way Foundation. Freedom of expression – whether in schools, museums, or any public place – is a fundamental right of Americans that PFAW Foundation will continue its work to protect.
People For the American Way Foundation president Michael Keegan sent a letter to members of the Randolph County, North Carolina, Board of Education today urging them to reverse their decision banning Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. Following a complaint from a parent, the board voted 5-2 on Monday to remove all copies of the acclaimed American literary work from school libraries in the county, Asheboro’s Courier-Tribune reported.
The Courier-Tribune is now reporting that the board may indeed reconsider the ban, noting that they plan to hold a special meeting about the book on Wednesday, September 25.
The full text of the letter is below:
Randolph County Board of Education
c/o Dr. Stephen Gainey, Superintendent
McDowell Governmental Center
2222-C S. Fayetteville St
Asheboro, NC 27205
September 20, 2013
Dear Members of Randolph County Board of Education:
On behalf of our 816,840 members and activists, we urge you to reverse your decision to remove all copies of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from Randolph County school libraries, which was reported by Asheboro’s Courier-Tribune.
Since its 1952 publication, Invisible Man has been targeted multiple times for censorship attempts. To be sure, it is a piece of literature that explores painful themes – one that, as journalist Roger Rosenblatt put it, “captured the grim realities of racial discrimination as no book had.” Yet despite the opinion of one board member that the novel lacks “any literary value,” Invisible Man is among the most acclaimed American novels of the past century. It won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction and was deemed by TIME magazine one of the top 100 English-language novels since 1923.
As an organization that works with elected officials, we recognize that school board members often face difficult decisions that require balancing the concerns of parents with the educational development of students. But denying students access to landmark novels such as Invisible Man because of a parent’s complaint harms students’ ability to learn from and engage with the rich body of literature our country has produced. In addition, multiple committees in your district recommended against its removal.
Our nation’s education system is designed to teach students critical thinking skills – to expose them to new, and sometimes challenging, ideas. This classic literary work must not be banned from schools. We urge you to reconsider this decision, and to make this book available once again to students in your school district.
President, People For the American Way Foundation
We here at People For the American Way Foundation are deeply saddened by the passing of Julius Chambers, a trailblazing civil rights lawyer and former People For the American Way Foundation board member. In the 1960s, Chambers opened what became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina and later went on to lead the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. Throughout his life, he fought and won cases on school desegregation and discrimination, including a case on public school integration – Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education– that went all the way to the Supreme Court and paved the way for the use of busing to counter segregation.
But as the New York Times noted yesterday:
Mr. Chambers’s victories came with a cost. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Swann, his offices were firebombed. After his successes in 1965, his car was firebombed and two bombs exploded in his home.
His response was defiant; he said he would “keep fighting.”
More than forty years later, during a 2008 PFAW Foundation panel on the future of the Supreme Court, Chambers made it clear that he was still fighting. He underscored his commitment to “us[ing] the courts to correct the injustices that we see still perpetuated today,” including discrimination against low-income people.
It is not difficult to see why the North Carolina NAACP chapter described Chambers as “a man of tremendous courage.”
North Carolina voters today are casting their ballots on Amendment One, an extreme measure that would write discrimination into the state’s consitution and potentially take away important protections for all unmarried couples, gay and straight.
The amendment states that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic union that shall be valid or recognized” in North Carolina. It would not only deal another blow to gay and lesbian couples in the state, who are already prohibited by law from marrying, but endangers protections for all unmarried couples, including domestic violence protections and health insurance coverage.
The Coalition to Protect North Carolina Families is running a handful of powerful ads showing Amendment One’s potential devastating impact. Here are a couple:
President Bill Clinton also recorded a robocall on behalf of the anti-Amendment One campaign. You can listen to it here.
North Carolina voters can find your polling place here.
North Carolina’s Senate today passed a measure to put an anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot. North Carolina is currently the only Southeast state that hasn’t amended its constitution to ban same-sex marriage, although it already has a statutory ban.
State anti-marriage amendments like North Carolina's are often put on the ballot to boost turnout for other elections – the Bush administration, for instance, was active in getting 11 anti-marriage amendments on state ballots in 2004.
What is remarkable about these amendments is that they change state constitutions to take away rights from citizens, while the traditional role of state and federal constitutions has been to guarantee rights for citizens, especially those who may not be popular among the majority.
It’s sad to see yet another state putting the rights of a minority at the mercy of a majority vote.