Understanding critics of Angelou's 'Caged Bird'


September 06, 1998|By Brian Sullam

SEVERAL YEARS ago, whenever I caught my two daughters watching "Married with Children," I wanted to take a sledgehammer to the television and smash it into little pieces.

Instead, I restrained myself and insisted they change the channel.

They willingly complied because they knew that if they didn't, I would shut off the television and banish them from the family room.

Despite my best efforts, they continued to view that despicable program whenever I wasn't around to stop them. I now suspect that as soon as I came home from work, they would click on another channel just to avoid another lecture about trash television.

This all came back to me when I read about Sharon and Barry Taylor's efforts to remove Maya Angelou's novel, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," from the ninth-grade reading list of Anne Arundel County public schools.

The autobiographical novel's graphic descriptions of the rape of an 8-year-old and its use of profanities profoundly upset the Taylors, whose son attends South River High School in Edgewater.

At a school board hearing three weeks ago, Mr. Taylor read what he considered a particularly offensive passage and broke down.

"It's very disturbing for me to read this," he said.

Although I don't agree that Ms. Angelou's novel should be removed from the curriculum, I understand the depth of his feelings. I recall my anger over the stupid, vulgar plots of "Married with Children," which glorified attitudes and values my wife and I detest. The works aren't comparable but the intensity of the feelings against them are.

Mr. and Mrs. Taylor's antipathy for Ms. Angelou's novel is probably greater than mine for "Married with Children."

Taylors shouldn't despair

I suspect that the Taylors will not succeed in their efforts to have this novel dropped from the reading list, but they should not despair for their children. I know my daughters watched a lot of more of "Married with Children" than I care to imagine, yet their exposure to that show did not affect them. They know that my wife and I condemn the values the show extolled -- treating women as fools; glorifying rudeness and stupidity; targeting the weak for abuse.

We expect our children to treat everyone with respect, to be compassionate, to avoid stereotyping people and places and, above all, to be honest. Somehow, our children absorbed these values and generally behave in ways that make us quite proud.

If I think about it, "Married with Children" is probably less offensive than other programming they regularly watch on the Fox network or MTV. Who knows what they are reading and seeing when they surf the Internet?

Now that they are in high school, I am also sure that they have to contend with issues -- drugs, drinking and sex -- that could be much more damaging than anything they have seen on television or encountered in cyberspace.

I also realize that as they grow it is much more difficult to control what they experience.

'Melrose Place' over 'Nova'

The only way to control what they watch on television is to sit in the family room and keep a grip on the clicker. Otherwise, we'll be watching a lot of "Beverly Hills 91210" or "Melrose Place," instead of "Nova," "Frontline" or "Homicide."

I have absolutely no control over the movies they see because they no longer depend on us to get around. When they travel to the cineplex, I'm not there to tell them that "Amistad" is more worthwhile than "Friday the 13th, Part 7" or "Scream II." But knowing my kids, they will plunk down their money for Hollywood's latest sleazy offering.

I also don't have the same contact with their schoolwork that I once did. It's not like it was when they were in elementary school and homework was a cooperative experience that enabled me to relearn all those primary school lessons I had forgotten.

Now that they are high schoolers, they come home and do their reading, writing and calculating without any assistance. I get only passing comments about what they are discussing in school.

I'll be the first to admit that getting my children to adopt my values has been an uphill struggle, particularly when much of popular culture promotes the basest kinds of behavior and thinking.

A family's values

By taking a strong stand against profanity, the portrayal of child sexual abuse and graphic descriptions of sexual activity, the Taylors have made it clear to their children where they stand on the family's basic values.

If the Taylors are worried about the consequences of having their children exposed to books such as "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," they shouldn't fret.

My guess is that the Taylors have provided their children with a strong emotional foundation that is not likely to be eroded, regardless of what they may read in books, watch on television or hear at the school yard.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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