Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Friday, June 14, 2002


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What a relief to see that New York's State Education Department, which prepares standardized "Regents" tests for public high school students, has learned its lesson and promised to stop plucking out "sensitive" words and references from literary excerpts in the exams.

You may remember that Jeanne Heifetz, a mother of a high school senior and wife/coworker of the publisher of Soho Books, discovered an altered piece of literature in one of the tests and decided to investigate.

She found that "the vast majority of the passages - drawn from the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Anton Chekhov and William Maxwell, among others - had been sanitized of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason," according to the New York Times.

To quote a few of the more stunning examples: the term "most Jewish women" in an I.B. Singer excerpt was changed to read "most women." Elsewhere, "fine California wine and seafood" became "fine California seafood," and so forth. The parts deleted were the very parts on which students were tested. It was all very bizarre.

The story was covered in the mainstream press, but I mention it here because the reason that the New York Education Department's "sensitivity guidelines" were established, according to assistant commissioner for curriculum Roseanne DeFabio, was to keep students from becoming "uncomfortable in a testing situation."

How one wishes that statement were unique, but no. It probably rings a familiar bell for many who worry about standardized testing throughout the country - and it's sure to hit a nerve among Californians who remember a similar event in the mid-'90s.

In that case, two stories by Alice Walker were not just altered but removed completely from a statewide test for 10th graders.

One of the stories, "Am I Blue?" was deemed "anti-meat-eating" if you can believe the term, because it "seemed to violate rural children's family occupations." The other, "Roselily," was too "anti-religious" for some readers and so it, too, had to go, according to the state's testing department.

The ACLU, NAACP, organizations of teachers, librarians, writers, parents and other civil rights organizations erupted with all the right (to me) grim indignation. But even the most furious protesters could not suppress laughter when, at the same time, the state of California announced that Walker had won a coveted Governor's Award declaring her a "state treasure."

The sponsor of this award was the California Arts Council, an agency that had nothing to do with the State Board of Education since it worked in tandem with the annual Governor's Arts Awards.

It was nice that the governor, Pete Wilson, personally wrote to Walker stating, "I oppose censorship of any kind . . . I have not endorsed the removal from tests of any of your writing." However, he stopped short of telling the Board of Education to *do* something about the problem.

So although Steven Spielberg, Hal Holbrook and David Hockney were also named as "state treasures," Walker declined the honor: "I love California and respect its children too much to accept becoming a 'state treasure' in a state whose educators consider my work a menace to the 10th grade." You gotta hand it to an author with a sense of humor.

It turned out that the whole brouhaha started because the ultra-conservative Christian right group, Traditional Values Coalition, based in Southern California and led by the notorious Rev. Lou Sheldon, had leaked the fact that "Roselily" was used in state exams to a southern California newspaper, the Riverside Press Enterprise.

The newspaper then published excerpts of the story, "prompting letters of protest from Christian conservatives," reported the American Library Association's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom.

That's when the Board caved in.

Groups on the religious right also lobbied the Board to remove an excerpt of Annie Dillard's "An American Childhood," stating that a snowball fight depicted there was too "violent." I mean, you have to wonder if gag writers are writing this material.

The episode would have been funnier if it weren't so tragic - and it got worse/better. After a very noisy and emotional hearing, in which one NAACP representative accused the Board of Education of being "lower than Nazis" for withdrawing Walker's work, the Board reversed its decision and promised to return Walker's work (and Dillard's) to the test's pool of literary excerpts.

For Alice Walker, a fair-minded person, that was the end of it. She agreed to accept the award naming her a "state treasure" at the gala Fifth Annual Governor's Arts Awards in Los Angeles. There, amid thunderous applause and cheers, she rose to accept the award - and was handed a gilded statuette in the shape of a headless, limbless female body mounted on a bronze base.

By this time, Walker had been researching another area of oppression - genital mutilation of young women in Africa and the Middle East (and in some areas of the Western hemisphere). She would go on to decry this crippling practice, and plea for understanding, in a film and companion book called "Warrior Marks," and in a sequel to "The Color Purple" called "Possessing the Secret of Joy."

So this was very much on her mind when she received the torso statuette at the Governor's Arts Awards celebration. "Imagine my horror," she said later, "when, after four years of thinking about the mutilation of women, I was presented with a decapitated, armless, legless woman, on which my name hung from a chain."

And she added: "Though these mutilated figures are prized by museums and considered 'art' by some, the message they deliver is of domination, violence and destruction."

Walker accepted the award with gracious eloquence - it is not her way to censor other people's idea of art, unlike some we might mention - but in the end, she put the torso in a box and forgot about it.

What was not forgotten by a lot of librarians across the state, however, was that the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, working with Walker's and Dillard's publishers, donated a copy of the books containing these works to every public high school librarian in California.

Included with the books was a letter from the NCIBA about (to paraphrase) "what this fight has meant" and "why we thought it important that any students who wanted to see what they weren't allowed to read could find in the school library."

I go into both the New York Regents Exam story and the Alice Walker story at length because, for one thing, those rumors you hear about the Christian right "infiltrating" boards of education and other groups are true.

Not only does the Far Right wait for a chance to penetrate the bureaucracy at any vulnerable point where the selection of exam material, books for a library, or textbooks for school use can be altered; it also knows that institutions will cave in after being flooded with phone calls, emails, letters and newspaper "leaks" that twist the language of First Amendment protections to make our schools and libraries appear shot through with sinister intentions.

And here is something you can still buy that isn't a "menace to 10th graders" but a truly instructive gift: In 1996, as a benefit for Aunt Lute Books, I edited and wrote an introduction to a beautiful little volume called "Alice Walker Banned."

This book has helped Aunt Lute publish a variety of unknown writers and is still available, thank heaven, at http://www.auntlute.com. It contains the full text of "Roselily" and "Am I Blue?" as well as an excerpt from "The Color Purple," and transcripts of the Board of Education Meeting, letters to the editor and a timeline of "The Color Purple' Debates."

The book is a timely reminder that when it comes to fighting censorship, our best bet is still, and will always be, constant vigilance.



Dear Holt Uncensured:

Regarding Part I of "No Turning Back," Estelle Freedman's book:

Ms. Freedman's answers to the talk show questions are indeed impressive, with one exception. She writes:

**"If feminists were in the White House and represented half of Congress, we would already be living in a different culture, perhaps substituting our 'wars' on drugs, poverty, cancer and terrorism with the kinds of far-reaching programs that get to the roots of these problems in racial discrimination, environmental pollution, and economic injustice."

This is the part as a man I struggle with, largely because I have seen precious little evidence of that so far. The women who succeed in politics are much too much like the men they replace, committed to their campaign donors like everyone else, with politics that don't differ much, and leadership qualities that differ even less. There are exceptions of course (Barbara Lee and Cynthia McKinney among others), but the vast majority represent an unpromising similarity to male politicians.

I can't escape the conclusion that I have been coming to more and more in the last several years: if there is a way to human liberation, stewardship of the planet, and justice for all, it lies beyond identity politics, in some ways, far beyond.

Robert Wicke

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Pardon my ignorance, but what do the double *asterisks* mean? Sometimes it is obvious that you are emphasizing a word in the way that teenagers embellish it with buckets of emotion (Mom!!!!). Other times (more often than otherwise) I am lost.

Is this use your invention or a standard literary technique? I've not seen it elsewhere.

A Reader

Holt responds: I learned to use asterisks from people who've emailed me and yes, they are added for emphasis since we can't use italics without risking problems of translation as the message goes out through various systems. I *have* (pardon me) worried that it's a very Mom!!!! thing to do, but using all caps seems TOO DRAMATIC to me, as you can see, and never using emphasis seems too flat. Also, asterisks placed before a series of paragraphs are my way of doing "bullet points" to denote a number of examples or ideas. I started out using one asterisk but didn't think it stood out enough, so now I use two. It's asking a lot of readers to figure this stuff out as we go but gad, sending emails filled with unintended boxes or gobbledygook would sure be worse.

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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