Dawn MacGibbon sent her high schooler to East Wake High School last week with a new sense of calm, knowing her daughter could avoid some controversial texts often used in English classes.
In July, East Wake High decided to remove Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from reading lists and required any teacher who plans to use Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” to assign it as alternative reading after receiving parental consent.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said such works deal with crucial issues that are better understood by students in a classroom context.
MacGibbon submitted paperwork to Wake County to review the books after seeing her daughter’s friend reading them for an 11th-grade Advanced Placement English class in April.
“We’re giving these images to our kids, and I think that’s wrong when these kids are at an influential phase in their life,” MacGibbon said.
MacGibbon included 14 pages of material she found in the books to be inappropriate for students.
Concerned about the content of “The Color Purple” – which begins with a description of rape from the victim’s point of view – MacGibbon also took note when her child’s friend was assigned “The Bluest Eye.”
That novel includes a description of a father raping his daughter.
“I never read the (“The Color Purple”), I saw the movie … it never fazed me until I read the book because it’s so descriptive,” she said.
After consideration from a committee made up one of the school’s media coordinators, two teachers, two parents and East Wake School of Engineering Systems Principal Sebastian Shipp, “The Bluest Eye” was banned in classrooms in East Wake’s School of Engineering and “The Color Purple” can only be used an alternative assignment if the teacher gets parental consent.
Both novels will still be available in the school’s library.
Schools in Wake County are able to make the decision to exclude a book from the schoolwide curriculum without approval from the county, a Wake County spokesperson said.
Shipp said that committee’s decision was affected by the absence of either book from reading lists and the failure of the teacher who originally assigned the novels to follow proper protocol for using them.
At East Wake High, only students who take English classes in the School of Engineering will not be allowed to read “The Bluest Eye.” Shipp said sometimes students from another one of the four schools take English classes through the School of Engineering.
“There are other texts that are like (“The Bluest Eye”) on an approved reading list,” Shipp said. “We are not necessarily denying students access to that level of literature.”
But Mike Meno, communications director at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said even if students can get to similar works of literature, it doesn’t mean they understand them.
“It goes without saying that a lot of unpleasant and ugly issues, like racism or violence against women, are difficult for people to comprehend and discuss, but that’s not a good reason to keep them out of classrooms,” Meno said. “By using literature as a way to examine these issues … we can better prepare students and young people to understand these very real issues that exist in the world that they are going to enter upon graduation.”
‘Bluest’ off the list
Both authors – Alice Walker and Toni Morrison – are on suggested reading lists from College Board, the body that administers and oversees the Advanced Placement program. College Board does not tell AP teachers what books students must read, but instead provides a broad list teachers can choose from.
Wake County Public Schools has its own list for high school juniors. The district’s list does not include “The Bluest Eye” or “The Color Purple,” but teachers may choose books from other approved lists, including College Board’s AP book list.
In making both decisions, the committee also determined the teacher who assigned the books to MacGibbon’s daughter’s friend did not follow proper protocol to assign the books in question.
“Due to the nature of the adult content and themes used by the author and the omission of the text from the WCPSS English III Reading List, the text as a whole should not have been assigned as a required reading selection ... ,” Shipp wrote in the decision regarding “The Color Purple.”
Shipp said teachers are required to go to their principal to get approval for books for any assignment, including alternative assignments, if the book is not on a list.
“The Bluest Eye” and “The Color Purple” never came to his desk.
Usually, Shipp said, that approval is followed by a letter to parents.
“When students are going through controversial topics ... it’s always good practice to notify the parents,” he said.
Going forward, Shipp said “The Bluest Eye” will not be allowed to be assigned, but “The Color Purple” may be used in alternative assignments that happen outside of class – like a book report where a student may choose what book to read.
The difference in the way the books are being treated is because “The Color Purple” is still considered educational because of literary devices, according to Shipp’s letter.
“The committee also determined that College Board and other literary reviews provided compelling arguments for the use of the text based on how the author uses multiple literary/rhetorical devices to expound on theme, image and symbolism through the lifelong struggles of the protagonist,” Shipp wrote in the decision.
Shipp said teachers are still expected to get permission from him to use the novel in assignments and will have to get parental consent as well.
It’s not a perfect compromise, Meno said. It still negatively impacts some.
“When you remove the book from a classroom, you take it from all the students in the classroom,” he said. “It’s much more preferable to have these challenging works of literature discussed in the classroom where you can have an experienced educator to lead discussions.”
Shipp said he doesn’t expect to see “The Bluest Eye” used in full at East Wake High any more. He said excerpts may be appropriate, but not the whole novel.