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Northville High School offers options to challenged book

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Northville — Tami Carlone was dismayed when learning her daughter had been assigned to read acclaimed writer Toni Morrison’s book, “The Bluest Eye” as part of Northville High School’s Advanced Placement English course.

She objects to the novel’s content, including depiction of a sexual assault. So Carlone filed a request with the district, aiming to have officials reconsider having the work included as part of the curriculum.

“I feel it’s developmentally inappropriate,” Carlone said. “I don’t feel any child should be required to read it.”

That idea inspired her, and many other parents, to pack a Northville Public Schools Board of Education meeting Tuesday night.

Board members unanimously approved a committee recommendation that allows parents to choose between the Morrison novel or two other works this spring.

“Because of your feedback, we’re giving you a choice,” board President Adam Phelps told the audience.

Officials say the book has been part of the AP English and Composition course since the early 1990s and was slated to be covered later this month at Northville High.

The Bluest Eye book by Toni Morrison, first published in 1970.

First published in 1970, “The Bluest Eye” revolves around the struggles Pecola Breedlove, a young African-American girl, faces living in Ohio during the early 20th century — including grappling with racial identity and sexual assault.

The request to reconsider using the book in the curriculum, which went to a committee that included a high school administrator, English teachers and other educators, cited the controversial content. However, “following a thoughtful and deliberative process, the committee reached a unanimous decision to recommend continued use” of the book, believing that removing it “would eliminate the opportunity for deep study by our student on critical themes in our society,” Deanna Barash, assistant superintendent of instructional services, wrote in a recent letter to the complainant.

“The rich text, dialogue and depiction of life for African Americans … allows our students to explore and synthesize the impact poverty, classism and oppression have on individuals.”

Parents, residents pack a Northville Public Schools Board of Education meeting to decide if “The Bluest Eye” should be kept or removed.

The recommendation was presented to a district committee April 5. Members asked that administrators consider adjusting the committee review and sought a revised proposal.

Throughout the sometimes contentious board meeting Tuesday at Hillside Middle School, many parents and others spoke out about the tough topics covered in Morrison’s book. Several racy excerpts were read aloud. Some, like Carlone, felt the material “glamorized” pedophilia and could affect students.

“We’re citizens concerned about the moral compass of our society and the direction it’s headed,” said Karen Braun, who lives outside the district.

But others advocated the artistic merit of the work.

“Now they have a forum where they can discuss these things happening in our culture,” parent Misty Woods said. “You don’t ban books. You don’t do it.”

Erica Meister, an AP literature student, pointed out that other required reading — including “The Great Gatsby” and even Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” — covered questionable behavior but has not always stoked such ire. “Why are these topics no longer acceptable when they are written about by an African-American female?” she said.

The board’s vote means that AP students and parents can choose between three works that cover themes such as oppression and poverty: the Morrison book, an essay anthology or William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Barash said. In the future, they’ll also have a chance to review which writings identified for students, she said.

Board members said they welcomed the comments from the public. But they also recognized that “The Bluest Eye” had not been challenged before, and considering a ban opens others questions about objectionable material.

“If people ask where we draw the line — that’s a very long list of lines,” board Trustee Sarah Prescott said.

This isn’t the first time “The Bluest Eye” has sparked debate. In 2014, the work earned a ranking on the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 most frequently challenged books; its Office for Intellectual Freedom fielded allegations the book was sexually explicit, unsuited for certain age groups and “contains controversial issues,” according to the website.

In 2007, Morrison’s work was among the books a Livingston County family values group cited when alleging that Howell educators violated a state law prohibiting the distribution of material harmful to a minor.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has weighed in. Removing Morrison’s” book “would send the message to students that censorship of ideas with which we are uncomfortable is permitted in our democracy,” officials wrote in a letter to Phelps.