The most egregious thing I ever saw a teacher do happened my freshman year at Princeton High School. Mr. Allegretti was a beloved English teacher who had been there for years. If I remember correctly, he taught my brother Andrew who graduated ten years before me. Loud, jovial and enthusiastic, he clearly had a passion for his job and was a favorite of many students. He had us read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. There’s a graphic scene in the book where the protagonist is raped and impregnated by her father. Mr. Allegretti chose the prettiest girl, and had her read this scene aloud for the class. I’ll never forget either her mortification or the prurient grin and twinkling eyes he had on his face as his listened. I still remember feeling paralyzed, like I should speak up and do something-say what was happening is wrong. But I didn’t have the self-confidence to do it. I did tell people about it. I’m pretty sure I even told my parents. But Mr. Allegretti never faced any consequences. I doubt the administration ever knew what he had done. His reputation remained intact.
I mention this because I see the Pinellas County, Florida school district banned Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” from its high schools because of a parental complaint about a rape scene. I have to say, it never occurred to me that The Color Purple should be banned. I had no problem with being assigned a book that contained a rape scene. I had a problem with my English teacher forcing a 14 year old girl to read explicitly sexual (and deviant) content aloud in front of her peers. Still, reflecting on my experience, I can understand why some parents would find the material inappropriate. There’s a continuum involved here, and not everyone will draw the line at the same place.
Having said that, I really don’t think a book (or movie) should be banned based on a single parental complaint. That opens the door for things like this:
Ruby Bridges talked in the late ’90s about the importance of Disney making a movie about how, as a first-grader, she became a civil rights icon by wading through a White mob to integrate an elementary school in the South in 1960.
“I think it’s important to look at this film to see what a 6-year-old child had to go through, what a family went through just to be able to have the same privileges as everyone else,” she told the Florida Times-Union. “… I think ideally that people will think about that and do everything they can not to pass prejudice on to their children.”
Now, more than six decades after Bridges endured that treatment, the parent of a second-grader at North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, Fla., filed a formal objection against the film after it was played in her child’s class as part of a Black History Month lesson, as first reported by the Weekly Challenger. In the complaint, the parent said the film isn’t appropriate for second-graders because it might teach them that “white people hate black people.”
Obviously, it’s silly to argue that learning about what some people did in the past will lead someone to conclude what all people feel in the present. When I was taught about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the clear message was that we had made progress and that this was a good thing. As a white person, I didn’t conclude that I should hate black people, nor that all my all white peers hated them. I was taught that we should treat blacks as our equals, and those who had fought to make that possible were heroes who made great sacrifices and took great risks. Understanding the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow made me more understanding of the difficulties I saw in the black community and I think that education achieved what Ruby Bridges hoped, which was that I made sure not to pass prejudice on to my children.
As for my self-image, I suppose that there was some small degree of guilt. I didn’t like learning how African and Native-Americans had been treated in this country by people who looked like me. But the predominate feeling was a resolve not to repeat or perpetuate those injustices. I came to that conclusion because the lesson was clearly that people aren’t immutable. White people weren’t condemned to being vicious segregationists, and the black community wasn’t condemned to living in its present condition, which was clearly still lagging in terms of wealth, health and opportunity. Everything should and could improve if we didn’t keep repeating the mistakes of the past. So, I didn’t feel badly about myself. I felt empowered.
The idea of progress is crucial, because without it you can see nothing but flaws and limitations. The conservative movement to shut down teaching about the history of race relations suffers from this problem. It’s not about teaching how people are, but how they should not be. We teach about the Holocaust not to send a message that whites hate Jews, but that hatred can lead to atrocity. Teaching about America’s legacy of white supremacy is no different. But you have to believe we can actually be better people in the future than we were in the past or the lesson doesn’t come through.
And this is the generous view. The less generous view is that some conservatives don’t want past behavior criticized because they want to continue that behavior in the present. They’re not afraid that their child will learn that white people hate black people but that there is something wrong with hating black people. That’s really at the heart of Trumpism, and it helps explain why we’re seeing this movement to empower parents to control what is taught about race in schools.