CBLDF Victory for Caged Bird, Gatsby, & More

Wednesday, May 20, Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) School Board in Alaska voted 6 to 1 to rescind a prior decision that banned five titles from a proposed high school English elective curriculum and brought their school district national attention. CBLDF, in collaboration with the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, penned a letter admonishing the ban, and asking the books to be returned to their previous status as recommended reading. The titles banned were:

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitgerald
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Despite the near-unanimous vote to reverse the previous vote, the meeting was far from harmonious. According to the local news, “School District Superintendent Monica Goyette had a heated exchange with school board Vice President Jim Hart” about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Hart has vocally opposed Maya Angelou’s autobiographical work more than any other title, claiming the book is sexually explicit and referring to passages within it as “sexual content.”

In the previous school board meeting Hart said that if he read a particular passage of Caged Bird aloud to his office, he would be “dragged” to the “equal opportunity office.” Hart decided to test that theory, and read aloud a passage from the book that dealt with Angelou’s rape as a child, saying it was to demonstrate the “sexual content.” Goyette was incensed at Hart’s mislabeling of the content as sexual, and cherry-picking a traumatic passage without context to try and prove his point.
From Alaska’s KTVA,

“A teacher would have prefaced that section talking about rape as a child. It should be read as a child being raped and a teacher would have read the entire book,” Goyette said. “To go on and talk about how people who are raped as children have guilt…”

“Ma’am,” Hart interrupted. “ I said nothing about anybody reading it other than a rape.”

“It’s not sexual content, it is rape of children,” Goyette responded.

“I read the text as it came into the book and I read it heartfelt, ma’am,” Hart replied.

A dozen students and citizens showed up before the meeting to utilize their First Amendment right to protest (while adhering to social distancing guidelines and wearing face masks). Many made signs declaring their opposition to banning books, including one that read “1984 is not an instruction manual.” CBLDF congratulates those in the Mat-Su community that fought for their intellectual freedom and won, as well as the school board for taking the advice of the letter to trust the work of the teachers who initially vetted and approved these books for the curriculum. You can read the full letter below.

Support important work like defending comics and books from being banned in public schools, by becoming a CBLDF member. For a limited time, CBLDF is offering bonus experiences for those that join or donate to the fight for free expression. Learn more at http://cbldf.org/2020/05/comic-book-greats-host-fan-experiences-for-cbldf-members/