The Censors and Maya Angelou

As 1997 ended, our final editorial warned of the erosion of privacy due to easy access to motor vehicle records and other files.

We begin the new year with concern about another attack on rights: censorship in Anne Arundel County schools.

After complaints by parents, school officials removed Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings from the ninth-grade curriculum. The work by the famous African American poet will be read by 11th-graders, but it's gone from freshman book bags.

Parents complained about sexual content and what were described as "anti-white" messages.

How sad.

Maya Angelou is a 69-year-old poet, professor and Pulitzer Prize winner who is among our finest living writers. She read an original poem at Bill Clinton's first inauguration.

It is doubly insulting because this international literary figure recently agreed to co-chair a committee in Annapolis that will raise money to complete a memorial at Annapolis Harbor to Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley and the legacy of slavery.

The book is her story of growing up in the 1930s, first in Texas and then in St. Louis. Hers was a close family with strong, traditional values about education, church and personal virtues. She wrote honestly about scoundrels, black and white. She described a class of people she called "powhitetrash" who taunted her family in hateful ways.

Unfortunately, that's the way it was - and still is in places - and fledgling high-schoolers may understand history better through the words of the gifted Angelou. African Americans have often been depicted in unflattering ways in literature: Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness to name two. Unlike Angelou's, those stories aren't even true.

School officials heard complaints about Angelou's account in the book of being raped at the age of eight by a friend of her mother's. We went back and read that passage; it was troubling and scarred the writer for years.

But it was milder than much of what is presented on network television every night, not to mention cable TV. And it was downright tepid compared to what can be punched up on the Internet in the time it takes to turn a page.

Censorship is a slippery slope whether in schools or the courts. The only silver lining is that it often backfires by creating more interest in what we are told we shouldn't read or can't look at.

We hope parents offended by Angelou's autobiography read the part about the policeman who reported to her grandmother news of the rapist's fate. He was a white policeman who had the decency to visit a black family.

What happened? After avoiding jail, the rapist was found beaten to death - one of many twists in this remarkable and informative book.

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VolumeVI Number 1
January 8-14, 1998
New Bay Times

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