Ohio Board of Education President Debe Terhar is at it again.
Earlier this year, Terhar was criticized for drawing a comparison between Barack Obama and Adolf Hitler on her Facebook page. She apologized, recognizing that as a public figure, her words must be “measured and tempered.”
Lesson not learned, apparently. Last week, Terhar made headlines again, saying that Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is “pornographic.”
For those unfamiliar with the book, “The Bluest Eye” is a novel about young Pecola Breedlove, who is bullied because of her skin color, nappy hair and brown eyes. More than anything, she wants to be blond-haired and blue-eyed.
In a harrowing passage, Pecola is raped by her father. Morrison describes the violation in detail, using common, coarse language. It is a difficult scene to read, but one that is vital to understanding the mind-set of both abusers and their victims.
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading (the novel), and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it,” Terhar was quoted as saying at a board meeting last week. “The Bluest Eye” is listed in an appendix to the state’s new Common Core Standards as a title read in the 11th or 12th grade. The appendix includes a non-graphic excerpt.
Terhar questioned whether anybody actually reads the books suggested in the Common Core appendix. Unintentionally, she echoes a question that teachers have been asking since the Common Core’s adoption, which is whether anybody involved in drafting this new curriculum actually reads, period. But that’s an issue for another day and column.
What I find most lamentable in Terhar’s remark is the implication that if a book isn’t appropriate for her grandchildren, then it isn’t appropriate for anybody’s grandchildren. That’s a common fallacy committed by people who would censor literature and art — a belief that their standards are the yardstick by which to measure everybody else’s.
She must also have a low opinion of teachers, not believing that they, working in conjunction with students, parents and administrators, can tackle challenging works in the classroom in a way that responsibly fosters the type of critical-thinking skills about real-world issues so vital to student success. That’s a sad vote of no confidence from somebody in Terhar’s position.
Thankfully, organizations such as the American Library Association crusade tirelessly to education the public about the importance of freely circulating ideas and words. Each year, the organization sponsors Banned Books Week (this year, Sept. 22-28), a celebration of our rights as Americans to read books on a variety of topics and themes. This includes teen readers, who have every right to read “The Bluest Eye” and decide for themselves if the book has merit.
Morrison’s novel is 15th on the ALA’s list of books most frequently banned or challenged from 2000-2009. This means that people other than Terhar have tried to impose their opinions about it on the American reading public.
In the wake of the school board president’s remarks, Christine Link, Ohio executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has spoken out on the novel’s behalf, noting a shameful history in this country of suppressing literature by and about black Americans on the basis of content and controversy.
Even Morrison herself stepped into the fray. The Nobel Prize-winning author sad that it was especially troubling to have to defend the book in her native Ohio.
And Terhar now finds herself doing a familiar dance — the back step. She has clarified that her comments — like her Obama/Nazi references — do not reflect the beliefs of the Ohio School Board, but are her own opinions. She meant no disparagement toward Morrison, although when you imply that somebody is a pornographer, it’s hard to see how that can be taken as anything other than a criticism.
Most importantly, she has pledged whole-hearted allegiance to the Common Core Curriculum, even though she questions the literary tastes of the people who assembled it and would like “The Bluest Eye” removed from its documentation, another fascinating paradox.
Maybe if this whole state school board president gig doesn’t work out for Terhar, she’ll step down and gain an opportunity to catch up on some reading. I’d recommend she start with “The Bluest Eye.”
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published Sept. 19, 2013, in The Alliance Review.