Arundel removes Angelou novel Book is taken out of 9th-grade classes after parents protest

January 12, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

A decision to remove Maya Angelou's autobiographical novel "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" from the ninth-grade curriculum of Anne Arundel County schools has angered black activists, baffled teachers and pleased some parents who say the book is too sexually explicit for 14-year-olds.

The decision, made by Superintendent Carol S. Parham and announced in a departmental memo distributed two days before Christmas, came after about a dozen parents protested the book's inclusion in ninth-grade studies.

The book will be included in an 11th-grade curriculum, school officials said, but listed as optional reading for ninth-graders. Schools spokeswoman Jane Doyle said it was possible that the school system might consider the book's inclusion in ninth-grade reading when curriculum materials are reviewed in the summer, although others in the system said the removal could be permanent.

"The impetus was parental concern over the contents and language," Doyle said. "Some of it was just the language itself, the explicit language. I don't have the feeling that it was related to a racial issue."

The head of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People disagreed.

"I really feel it's racially motivated," Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP chapter, said yesterday. "I think they should put it back. We read about the white culture all the time, and other cultures. But when someone writes about our culture -- and that's what Maya has done -- that's not OK."

The book, which earned Angelou a National Book Award when it was published in 1970, is the story of the author's childhood in the rural South, including descriptions of rape, abuse and sexual anxiety about lesbianism.

Ninth-grade English teachers who have used the book said yesterday that they are sorry to lose it as a teaching tool, because it engages nearly every student who reads it. It is included in a curriculum about self-discovery taught in the first half of the ninth grade for above-average students.

"I think it's pretty sad," said Sheila Finlayson, who has used the book in her class for two years. "Both years my ninth-graders totally enjoyed the book. It teaches a wonderful lesson about overcoming obstacles. The parts that are objectionable are so minor, compared to the whole book."

Not so, said two of the at least 14 parents who complained about the book's inclusion for ninth grade.

"I did not let my son read this book," said Sue Crandall, who was the first parent to protest the book's inclusion in ninth-grade reading. Her son attends South River High School. "The sexual content -- that was my entire problem with it. I was blown away by really explicit sexual details in the book. All that is, is fodder for the lunchroom -- they're not going to get the whole picture, they're not old enough."

Another parent, Dianne Osborn, said, "The book is sexually explicit." She said her son, a ninth-grader at South River, has read part of the book. The book discusses masturbation, rape and other sexual issues, she said, that are too advanced for ninth-graders. Worse, she pointed out, her son's teacher declined to discuss any of the sexual parts of the book with her students, although requiring them to read about it.

Her concerns were echoed by another parent, Beth Cunningham, who said the reading material was not appropriate for 14-year-olds.

"It talks so openly about inappropriate sex acts," said Cunningham, a retired nurse.

The county school board has not intervened, said member Vaughn Brown. "As a board we have not discussed it," Brown said. "It's a decision made within the authority that the superintendent has. This situation and the publicity caused me to go out and get the book to read. I'm glad I did -- it's a wonderful piece of literature.

"I don't see a problem with it being used in the schools."

Pub Date: 1/12/98

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