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january 24, 2007


group targets black authors' books

toni morrison's novel deemed 'smut' by parent; acclaimed memoir 'black boy' also is under fire.

valerie olander / the detroit news

the works of two noted african-american authors are among three books that a group of residents touting family values want banned from howell high school.

nobel prize author toni morrison's first novel, "the bluest eye," and an acclaimed memoir written by richard wright in 1945, "black boy," are the latest to be characterized as "smut."

both books address social issues of blacks in 1940s america and have been used for at least two years in an american literature class.

the course is being expanded from a semester to a full school year, requiring curriculum changes and approval from the board of education.

controversies arising from reading material in high schools are not unique to howell. in recent months, the taylor school district temporarily pulled mark twain's "the adventures of huckleberry finn" after an african-american parent complained of the book's racial epithets.

ann blaine, a howell resident and author of a christian novel, on monday read several graphic paragraphs before the school board from "the bluest eye" that told of incest and rape through the narrative of an 11-year-old girl.

"tell me, what is the redeeming quality of this book?" blaine yelled to school board members and the standing-room only crowd of about 100. "i've never read such smut like that in my life."

on the other side of the issue was resident andrew ketchum: "i can't believe in the 21st century we're still talking about banning books." the books have been under fire by members of livingston organization for values in education, or love, and school board member wendy day.

day has been a vocal critic of the content, saying it's inappropriate for teens when inoffensive books are available.

the board decided monday to put the issue on hold until its feb. 12 meeting. two board members were absent and the remaining five were split, neither side with the four votes needed to approve or ban the books. board member phil westermoreland wanted more time to review the materials before "rubber stamping" approval. judith krug, director of the office for intellectual freedom of the american library association in chicago, said 450 books were banned or censored in public and school libraries across the country in 2005, the latest figures available. many of the books are by black authors, she said.

"toni morrison is challenged regularly because she is a black author who writes about the real world," she said.

she speaks with so much knowledge about black issues she can't be accused of creating these (issues). people find these issues threatening," she said.

in december, the first objection to reading material at howell high caused erin gruwell's "the freedom writers diary," to be pulled temporarily from an advanced placement english classroom. the book, recently released as a motion picture, is a true story about teaching at-risk kids in long beach, calif. a portion of the book includes the students' journal entries about urban living. profanity is peppered throughout the writings, which include talk about sex and drugs.

the board is expected to approve the books when members ted parsons and mary jo dymond are in attendance.

steve manor, president of livingston diversity council, said proposed book banning and other "family values issues" dominating recent school board meetings could be a step backward for efforts his group has made in the past 18 years.

"i hope (others outside of the community) don't look at this and say, 'yep. that's howell.' every community goes through things like this the conversations i've had with people seems to be there's a lot of people concerned about the tenor, the tone of all of this," he said.

howell high teacher tracy ash, a member of the district curriculum council, defended the literature selections, saying books address important social issues and must be viewed on the whole rather than selected excerpts.

you can reach valerie olander at (517) 552-5503 or

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