Parent testifies against book Angelou work is 'disturbing,' school board is told

August 23, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Barry Taylor, an Edgewater parent determined to prove that a book by Maya Angelou is unfit for high school students, cried yesterday as he read a graphic description of the rape of an 8-year-old from "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" to the Anne Arundel County school board.

Taylor, who along with his wife, Sharon, filed a complaint about Angelou's book in November, asked if children were present in the hearing room at the Board of Education building in Annapolis before he began to read.

"These things are not a minor part of the book," he told the board when he finished. "It's very disturbing for me to read this."

The Taylors' complaint is believed to be the first in Maryland against Angelou's autobiographical account of growing up in the Deep South during the 1930s.

The hearing on whether to remove the book from the ninth-grade curriculum was attended by about 30 people, most supporting the Taylors' view. The administrative hearing was similar to a courtroom proceeding. A court reporter recorded what was said by the "prosecution" -- the Taylors and their supporters -- and the "defense" -- attorney Darren Burns acting on behalf of Carol S. Parham, superintendent of Anne Arundel schools. The school board acts as a jury.

Among those speaking in support of the Taylors, whose son attends South River High School, was their church pastor.

Pastor testifies

The Rev. Earl Thompson of Community Baptist Church in Edgewater testified that he and his wife were offended by the book. He said the Anne Arundel County Code of Student Conduct prohibits sexual harassment, racial slurs and profanity, and that it is hypocritical for students to be allowed to read about such things but not be allowed to use the words.

"The standards in the student handbook ought to be followed or it should be changed and we then change our standards," he said. "A student who reads Ms. Angelou's book and reads the profanity should be disciplined."

Thompson quoted from the Bible: "A man is as he thinks in his heart." Immoral reading materials produce immoral behavior, he said.

When questioned by school attorney Burns, Thompson acknowledged that sexual abuse of children started long before Angelou's book was published.

Still, Thompson said, "This type of material inflames the base nature of man to do what comes natural, not necessarily what is right."

Teacher support

Sheila Finlayson, an English teacher at South River High School in Edgewater, called the book great literature and said it is useful to Anne Arundel ninth-graders required to read it.

"Reading Maya Angelou is like reading a letter from your mother," she told the board. "It's something they [students] can immediately relate to. It teaches them tremendous lessons in life. And while we may like to think that ninth-graders are not exposed to these things, they are. This book shows they can persevere even under the worst circumstances."

Frequently targeted

While the book is widely read in high schools across the country, it has been the most frequently targeted book by unhappy parents in the past two years, according to the American Library Association. Another parent is protesting use of the book in Montgomery County.

"It's all too easy to take passages out of the book about child abuse, sexuality and racism and read them in isolation without considering the entire novel and its themes in a practical way," said Charles Suhor, former deputy director of the American Library Association.

"The horrors of child abuse and racism are not endorsed just because they appear in a book, but rather the book is meant to invoke our sense of injustice," he said.

Described as 'vulgar'

But Robert Costa, a member of the Taylors' church, said the book is "vulgar" and has no "literary value" for students.

"I support the First Amendment and I do not believe in censorship," Costa testified. "The teacher said this book stimulates an interest in reading. Well, young people have many feelings as they are growing up, and I think this book stimulates these feelings."

The second part of the hearing, in which Burns will present Parham's case supporting the book, has not been scheduled.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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