Intersections

Survivors. Digging Deep. And the Exhausting Nature of Rage.

Content note: discussion of sexual assault, rape, depression

I haven’t blogged in months. Three-and-a-half months, roughly. On Monday, I wrote about how depressed I was most of the summer, and that’s part of the story.

There was actually a lot I could have written about this summer. I took an arts-intensive workshop with other K-12 teachers and got a lot of great teaching ideas, but also came away with a lot of questions and a desire to take it further, because, well, I think we can do more and expect more for our students’ ability to engage in the art-making process. I think the way we engage them is often insulting to both their cognitive and emotional intelligences (and I’m not talking about the way Powers that Be talk about “raising the bar.” They can shove their Bar).

I took a week-long graduate-level pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. It was life-changing. Career-changing. Did I mention life-changing? There was so much to unpack from the four-day seminar, and so many connections to what I’ve done, what I am doing, and what I will be doing in my classroom. I connected it back to the arts workshop, and made even more connections to what was missing from that experience. I will be writing about it later. But I could have written about it this summer, too.

Here’s what happened, and why it’s taken me so long to come back: I wrote about the Josh Duggar abuse scandal. And my post turned into a three-post series. And I had to dig pretty deep for part of it. And I had to word things carefully, and try to keep a cap on my rage, and not say too much. And then I was tapped out, and I could go no further. Before I could write more, on anything, I had to talk to my parents. There are issues too important, too damaging, too harmful, too caustic, too violent for me too keep myself partially shrouded. And some things are things too important for my parents to read for the first time on a blog.

So I took a break. And I drove home, 1200 miles, took my parents out to dinner, and told them something I’d kept from them for 11 years.

I am a rape survivor.

It made so many things make sense to them, that never clicked before. I told them I’ve been in counseling, I’ve been working on it, I’ve been healing. It doesn’t control my life. But I’m to the point where I want to write about it, to help other women, to help men and women understand, to volunteer with victims/survivors, to help the Church respond better.

Because that’s the part that made me so angry I had to quit writing– when I first started opening up to friends in the church I was revictimized by the responses, and writing Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones drudged a lot of that up. And it was exhausting. It was exhausting to write about it circuitously when I wanted to write about me. It was exhausting to know how feels to be a rape victim, and to have the response be about restoring purity or forgiveness, rather than on pursuing justice or making sure the abuser gets real help or is kept out of positions of authority so he cannot abuse again. (By the way, my abuser abused again. They do that. It’s a thing).

Now I’m back. I’m back teaching, back to grad school, trying to get a handle on this latest depressive cycle. And I’m “out” as a survivor.

There are more of us out here than you probably realize or know. That has to change. This culture of rape and abuse has got to change.

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Migraine Monday: Depression Sucks

Depression sucks.

My neurologist took me off one of my migraine medications this summer. We scaled back slowly, but the withdrawal was still awful. I couldn’t sleep, and yet all I could do was sleep. I wasn’t hungry. Food was boring. I lost weight. My motivation was sapped, my energy drained. I cried.

All of this makes sense, I reminded myself. Withdrawal is hard. It’ll get better. 

Withdrawal is over. It’s not better.

My head is holding out, for the most part. I’ve had no major vascular episodes. I’ve had some tingly fingers and lips, a couple visual auras. At least two days with olfactory hallucinations. But no pain. I’ve lost, I would guess, 10 pounds, which my doctor told me to expect. I don’t weigh myself though…that’s opening a whole new can of worms, but my thinking on the issue provided a clue into how depressed I was getting (more on this for Fit Friday).

You see, depression sucks. It lies. It sucks my energy, saps my strength. It stalls my progress, regresses my growth. It plants dead and dying thoughts in my head and distorts my view of reality.

Worst of all, it makes me believe I deserve to feel as shitty as I feel.

It’s just withdrawal. You’ve felt worse. You were suicidal back in junior high, and at least it’s not that bad. Sure, your sleep is disrupted, but at least you’re sleeping more than four hours a night, and you’re getting naps. You’re not eating much, but it’s summer, and you don’t get terribly hungry in the summer anyway, and your roommate is making you eat dinner at least, and your pants fit better now don’t they?? The structure of the school year will snap you out of my funk. You feel okay. Okay is okay!!

Okay is not okay. I deserve to feel better than just “okay” for the rest of my life.

And here’s the kicker, at least for me: at least three people very close to me are depressed right now. One of them, I counseled and helped get back to the doctor to re-start medication. And things are looking up. Another one? We remind each other to shower and eat when a really bad day happens. Because sometimes someone needs to remind you to shower. And the third? That’s my sister. We’ve been doing this together for over a decade. I can see it and help it in other people, but for myself?

Self care is hard. Because depression lies.

So I called my neurologist this week. I started with him. If he wants to stick with the medication change, I’ll go to my regular doctor and see about my depression/anxiety medication. I don’t deserve to live this way, sleeping on half a bed while the other half is covered in laundry and library books, eating only waffles and coffee, counting my days in naps and avoided phone calls. Okay is not okay.

No one deserves to live this way. My medication withdrawal has passed. Time to stop withdrawing from life.

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Abuse and the Use of Power

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

I’ve stared at this blank blog post for a while.

My heart is heavy and more than a little frustrated. I do not want to jump into the fray regarding the latest high-profile abuse scandal to capture our attention. The coverage of such stories bothers me, the way we center the narrative on the perpetrator and fixate on how and why he did it, on whether his consequences were served in the right time and manner, and on whether the appropriate public response should be outrage or forgiveness. Although my heaviness and frustration have been triggered by this latest event, it is by no means limited to this incident, nor is it centered on the tradition or the adherents from which the abuse sprang. There are well-written pieces on that, and that is not my area. Moreover, I have found this happens across traditions.

To date, I have written about the intersections of gender, race, social class, and language. I have written comparatively little on the topic of or intersection with religion. It’s a difficult topic for me. I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, got my B.A. from a liberal Lutheran college, spent a lot of energy not fitting in to the Evangelical circle during college, and currently wrestle at a Brethren church. I know a lot of people who have been hurt in and by the church, regardless of tradition. I have been hurt by the church and by well-meaning church people.

It’s hard to write about something to which I am still so closely tied. But that’s why I attend a church that decides most things by consensus. Where the pastors defer to the congregation, rather than the other way around. Where the pastors are a husband-and-wife team with equally strong voices. It’s not perfect, but once when a pastor said something in a sermon that caused me to become visibly uncomfortable, I got a text message later (because I prefer texts) so we could hash out the intent, how I heard it, and why I was bothered.

It has become abundantly clear when there is an imbalance of power, there exists the potential for abuse. I learned this from the church. My graduate work has confirmed it. And the current media firestorm illustrates this even further.

Allow me to elaborate:

I am currently preparing a manuscript with two additional authors on the abuse of women and girls with disability. The paper covers twenty years of research studies into the topic, and finds that across all age bands and across all categories of abuse, women and girls with disability experience abuse at higher rates than women and girls without disabilities. The single most common theme that emerged? Victims were more vulnerable to abuse as a consequence of power being used inappropriately. We also wrote:

[The] difficulty in achieving justice in the court system for women with disabilities who have been sexually assaulted stems from the failure to recognize the abuses of trust, power, and authority in the relationships of these women.

Further factors that conveyed risk or protective factors were isolation vs. social inclusion; that source indicated the degree to which a woman was socially embedded mitigated the likelihood she would experience partner violence.

So how does this relate to the current news cycle? Everything.

The pieces I’ve read have fit into two categories: those that have used carefully selected language, and those that have called out the careful words for softening and whitewashing what was an act of sexual abuse and violence against the bodies of young girls. But both categories seem to be so caught up in the politicization of the scandal that they miss some really important information.

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

And it is this part of the narrative that bothers me so much, that most conversations are missing: however it was (or wasn’t) handled, after whatever counseling did (or did not) occur, the person in question still went on to achieve positions of power and authority. 

Most of the pieces I’ve read in the Forgiveness camp demonstrate some simplistic and/or disturbing misconceptions of what forgiveness means. I’ll get to that later this week. But the amount of power, authority, and leverage ascribed to his (former) position with the Family Research Council is troubling, snarky and/or frustrated comments about anti-LGBT campaigns aside (those are worth discussion, but not in this blog post).

The way we center our coverage on perpetrators is disturbing. Our concern for victims/survivors’ wellbeing rarely seems to match our morbid curiosity for the details of their violation. We need a new lens: power, and why give it back to the perpetrators.

What Kids “Get”

Content note: social class, classism, art, accessibility

Poor Kids Get Art!

That was the thrust of the piece by Rachel Lu in response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks at the ribbon cutting of the Whitney Museum in New York.

I agree. Poor kids do get art. But the First Lady never said they didn’t:

You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, well, that’s not a place for me, for someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.  In fact, I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum.

And growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I was one of those kids myself.  So I know that feeling of not belonging in a place like this.  And today, as First Lady, I know how that feeling limits the horizons of far too many of our young people.

The First Lady understands the both the broad and nuanced implications of power, privilege, and marginalization; this is her lived experience.

From Rachel Lu’s piece, and her lived experience:

I myself once took a group of African-American eight-year-olds through the Chicago Art Institute [sic]. Admittedly, they were from the West Side, not the South Side, so maybe they weren’t as underprivileged as Michelle Obama had been.

Once. She took underprivileged kids to an art museum once.

Later, as she showed them Monet’s haystacks:

The question inspired some rousing discussion among the group […] But eventually they started to get it. “Maybe it would be cool,” one boy remarked thoughtfully, “to see how things look at different times of the day.”

“And now you can,” I told him. “Right here in this room. That haystack is surely gone now, but the whole world can see what Monet saw when he looked at it, just by visiting this room.” We were quiet for a moment as the kids took in the room. I reflected with a tinge of sadness that haystacks and sunsets probably weren’t a big part of their concrete-jungle existence.

Here we have some reflection, followed by pity. She also takes credit for opening the students’ eyes to Monet specifically and Art in general. It reminded me of the short-term mission trips popular among my peers during my evangelical days, a kind of privileged tourism. Those poor kids, were it not for me, would never have understood [blank].

Lu’s single experience taking a group of children to the Art Institute of Chicago was enough evidence to counter the First Lady’s assertion that poor children of color do not see museums and other centers of culture as welcoming places. That is the epitome of privilege: my opinion supersedes your lived experience. In fact, the way Lu positions herself as the gatekeeper in that scenario, as the White, middle-class volunteer with the time and the knowledge, keeps the art she loves inaccessible.

In my own field, the astonished Deaf Kids Get Poetry! should give me pause. Of course they do. As a gatekeeper, I need to make sure that I am not making the literary form even less accessible than it already may be. My students proved to me this year that they get poetry–in English, in ASL, signed or spoken. My students chose their own poems this year. I helped them crack the code, but the “getting it” was in their own power. When it came to translating, I know my students see the world differently than I do. I may have the grammar, but they have the images.

My students also “get” condescension. They are tuned in to the adults around them. They know when someone doesn’t expect much from them. They know when a face or a voice is insincere. They would “get” Rachel Lu, even through an interpreter.

I have my own problems with the First Lady’s remarks. Institutions like the Whitney should be doing outreach not with the hope of reaching the next great artist or the next First Lady, but because all children should have access to the arts as a form of expression, culture, and identity. Art should be seen not just as a tool to “rise above,” but also to simply be. Art should not be reserved for the privileged galleries, although some of it is housed there. Art needs to be in the streets, on our hands, on our lips. Kids get art, they get poetry. It’s the adults who fail to understand what that means when their privilege gets in the way.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.