UPDATE, 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 13
Author Toni Morrison has spoken out about remarks by Green Township’s Debe Terhar - the president of the Ohio School Board - in which Terhar called Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye “pornographic.”
“The book was published in the early seventies and it has been banned so much and so many places. That I am told I am number 14 on the list of 100 banned books,” Morrison told Columbus TV station NBC4.
“I resent it. I mean if it’s Texas or North Carolina as it has been in all sorts of states. But to be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio having been born in Lorain, Ohio. And actually relating as an Ohio person, to have the Ohio, what- Board of Education? Is ironic at the least,” Morrison, a Lorain native, told the TV station.
The ACLU Thursday wrote a scolding letter to Ohio’s School Board President Debe Terhar for calling The Bluest Eye, a novel by Toni Morrison, pornographic during a board meeting Tuesday and for suggesting any mention of it be excised from the new Common Core education standards the state has adopted.
Terhar leads one of the state’s top education policy groups. Its 19 members are elected by voters or appointed by state officials.
Her district includes Hamilton and Warren counties.
The Bluest Eye is among Pulitzer-winning Morrison’s many novels that reveal the traumas and challenges in African-Americans’ lives.
The book, which takes place in Lorain, Ohio, follows a young girl who whose father rapes and impregnates her. After the rape, the girl goes insane.
The book deals with characters harmed by racism, extreme self-hate and family ties that support or destroy young people.
The Common Core guidance documents include a passage in the book that contains no sexual content and lists the book in an index for works typically read by high school juniors, ages 16 and 17.
Terhar, a former early childhood teacher, called the novel pornographic, inappropriate for any school children. She questioned whether anyone at the education department had read any of the books mentioned in Common Core.
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it,” Terhar said during the board meeting. “For the state board to be even associated with it, I think, is the wrong message that we send. I’m passionate about that.”
Book challenges are not unusual, but it is unusual to have someone of Terhar’s status challenge a specific book, ACLU of Ohio officials said.
“When the state board president opens the door to censorship and indicates a book is pornographic, while she’s not banning it … there’s room there to force school districts to interpret it that way,” said Shakyra Diaz, policy director of ACLU.
The group’s letter to Terhar indicated that her challenge also has a racial angle.
“Your comments are another in a long history of arguments that advocate the banning of African American literature because it is ‘too controversial’ for schoolchildren,” wrote Christine Link, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, based in Cleveland.
Terhar did not return calls for comment. Instead, she released a statement saying her opinions are her own, not the state board’s.
“I remain completely supportive of Ohio’s new learning standards, and those comments should not be construed to indicate that my commitment has waned,” she said.
“The comments I made reflected my concern about the graphic passages contained in a specific text,” Terhar said in the statement. “I do not personally believe these passages are suitable for school age children. Nothing more and nothing less should be inferred. In particular, no disparagement was meant towards the celebrated career of Ohio author Toni Morrison.”
Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. Morrison was teaching at Howard University when she began writing The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Several of Morrison’s books, including The Bluest Eye, have been challenged over years.
Terhar wasn’t the only objector to the Common Core’s literary references. Fellow board member Mark A. Smith, president of Ohio Christian University of Circleville, believes there’s a hidden philosophy underpinning the Common Core standards which is anti-American.
“I see agenda that’s far more ... than just a curriculum of teaching. I see an underlying socialist, communist agenda,” he said. “There’s an agenda against what America was founded upon.”
The Common Core is a system of guidelines for reading and math which are supposed to emphasize critical thinking and analysis. Adopted by 45 states over the past three years, its English Language Arts standards are designed to encourage teachers and students to compare nonfiction and fiction texts and to tackle passages that feature complex language, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.
Even with the standards, Charlton said, each school district, not the state board or education department, determines what books or passages students read, Charlton said.
Just in time for Banned Book Week, the ACLU letter invites Terhar and other board members to attend a Banned Book event in Columbus on Sept. 26, where some of Morrison’s other works will be read aloud, “giving you a chance to better familiarize yourself with the important work of this Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author.”
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