For the second time this year, Ohio School Board President Debe Terhar is under fire for voicing her personal opinion, this time about a novel by Ohio native and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
Terhar said at the state school board meeting on Tuesday that The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, should not be included on a suggested reading list for Ohio high-school students because it is “totally inappropriate.”
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anyone else’s children reading it,” Terhar said at the board meeting. “It should not be used in any school for any Ohio K-12 child. If you want to use it in college somewhere, that’s fine.”
At the time, Terhar did not specify why she opposes Morrison’s novel, but said it is inappropriate for the school board to “even be associated with it.”
Set in the 1940s in Lorain, the book’s heroine is a black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who dreams of how her life would be better if she had blue eyes like a white person. In the novel, the girl is raped and impregnated by her father.
Neither the board nor the Ohio Department of Education made any immediate changes to the book list that is suggested, not required, in Common Core curriculum standards being implemented by Ohio and other states to better prepare students for college. The Bluest Eye is on the list for 11th-grade English/language arts.
John Charlton, spokesman for the Department of Education, said Morrison’s book is “not part of the new learning standards in Ohio and it’s not required of any school or teacher. Local school districts make their own decisions.”
“It’s not the position of the board that the book, or any book, be banned,” Charlton added.
Terhar was backed by fellow board member Mark Smith, president of Ohio Christian University, who said he is very concerned about such books, because they are “quite divisive, and the benefit educationally is questionable at the least.”
“I see an underlying socialist-communist agenda ... that is anti what this nation is about,” Smith said.
Morrison, a Lorain native, published The Bluest Eye in 1970. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993.
Paul Bogaards, head of media relations for Knopf Doubleday, Morrison’s publisher, sent a response to the Dispatch regarding Terhar’s comments.
“Toni Morrison’s contribution to American letters is widely known. ... When school representatives choose to trumpet ideology over ideas, asking for books to be banned or withdrawn, students suffer. We oppose literary censorship in all forms and support the First Amendment rights of readers to make their own reading choices.”
The Common Core standards have drawn fire from conservatives, and Morrison’s book has become the latest flash point because of its graphic rape scene. Last month, an Alabama state senator unsuccessfully sought to ban use of the novel in schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio sent a letter to Terhar yesterday questioning her comments.
“Unfortunately, there is a long and troubling tradition of attacking African-American literature on the grounds that it is ‘too controversial’ for young people,” Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, said in a statement. “These attempts to ignore or gloss over complex issues do a disservice to our students, who cannot lead our future unless they fully understand the past and present.”
“We hope that Ms. Terhar and other members of the board will attend our September 26 event, where they may learn more about the many African American authors whose important voices have been misunderstood and attacked,” added Link.
Written in 1970, The Bluest Eye features Pecola Breedlove, a black child from Ohio who wishes she were white with blue eyes. Through the course of the novel, she becomes a haunting symbol of internalized racism as she is abused by her community and eventually raped and impregnated by her own father.
The ACLU asked Terhar and other board members to attend a Sept. 26 event in Columbus in observance of “Banned Books Week,” a national effort to spotlight literary censorship.
In a statement released yesterday, Terhar said her comments reflected her personal views and stressed that she remained “completely supportive of Ohio’s new learning standards.”
“The comments I made reflected my concern about the graphic passages contained in a specific text. 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.”
After President Barack Obama’s call for stricter gun-control laws earlier this year, Terhar posted a picture of Adolf Hitler on her Facebook page with the quotation: “Never forget what this tyrant said, ‘To conquer a nation first disarm its citizens.’ — Adolf Hitler.”
She survived an ouster vote by fellow board members and apologized for her “error in judgment."
By Alan Johnson - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
Dispatch Reporter Catherine Candisky contributed to this story.
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