Tempers flare at board meeting over ‘The Color Purple’

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By Sam Hickman

 Brunswick County’s Board of Education monthly meeting Nov. 5 became heated as community members shared their opinions on “The Color Purple.”

Board member Catherine Cooke expressed concern with the book’s content to the media and shared her desires to remove Alice Walker’s novel from the Advanced Placement English reading list for 11th-grade students.

The board invited members of the public to comment about the matter during the meeting, which drew a large turnout and statements from educators, parents, students and church members about the book’s educational value. The school board took no action concerning the book at the meeting.

Students and parents were required to sign a course syllabus at the beginning of the school year that agreed to the terms of the course. “The Color Purple” was among books on the reading list, which was part of the syllabus.

Language and sexually explicit material were most often cited in complaints as to whether the book, which deals with racism, violence against women and rape, has literary value that is age appropriate for the students.

“I do not understand why this is material any parent or administrator would put in front of innocent minds,” said Hannah Giordano, an 11th-grader at West Brunswick High School. “I understand this country was founded on freedom of speech, but with over 200 choices of literature on our reading list, why require us to read this?”

Brunswick County resident Louie Lewis said his  “blood began to boil” after he read excerpts from the book.

“This was brought to my attention about a week ago,” Lewis said. “I went home and read parts of it, and it made me sick.”

Lewis apologized for being out of touch, but vowed that he’d do everything in his power to have the book removed from the reading list.

“This is a disgrace to our system and it’s because God has been taken out of schools,” he said.

Victor Malo-Juvera, a University of North Carolina-Wilmington professor of English, cited the book’s literary merit as a reason the book should continue to be read by students in the class.

“If this is supposed to be a college-level course, then these students need to be reading college-level material,” he said.

“The Color Purple,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Fiction in 1983, has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly studies, Malo-Juvera said.

“You cannot question this book’s literary merit,” he said. “Winning the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for Fiction in the same year is the equivalent of being named World Series MVP and Super Bowl MVP in the same year. It’s unheard of.

“If you want to ban this book from an AP class, then it’s not an AP class anymore,” he added. “If you ban this book, you’re giving ammunition to those people who don’t want to give your kids college credit for taking an Advanced Placement high school class.”

Malo-Juvera explained that however terrible, rape and sexual violence are real-world issues that teens face and are frequently victims of or exposed to in popular culture, thus requiring a counter-balancing discussion by a trained teacher in an educational setting to understand.

“What we have to remember is that the book itself isn’t obscene,” he said. “Something that exposes obscenity isn’t in itself obscene.”

Others disagreed, including parent Robert Norton.

“There’s things here that have slipped by me. We depend on teachers to make decisions on behalf of us with our kids in mind,” Norton said. “Who decides when a child is old enough to be exposed to rape, incest and vulgarity?

“I ask all of you to please consider other options for our children. Please pursue other options,” he said. “Consider their well-being. These are our children.”

Others who spoke on the issue included county commissioners Marty Cooke, who is Catherine Cooke’s husband, and Pat Sykes.

“As you see in Wilmington, with UNC-Wilmington, and all the crime, the shooting and everything going on over there, everybody worries about them coming over here to Brunswick County,” Sykes said. “Well, I can tell you, if you continue with the sex and the profanity, the gangs will come, and they will come and there will be no stopping it. There will be shootings, because violence brings violence.”

Cooke, a former educator, was vehemently opposed to the novel remaining on the course’s reading list.

“Why would anyone want their child exposed to this?” he asked. “I believe we are setting the wrong example. Let’s look at other and better options. We are the gatekeepers. I will not stand for it.”

Hannah Caison, a 16-year-old at West Brunswick High School in the 11th-grade AP class attended the meeting with a half-dozen of her classmates to oppose removing the book from the curriculum.

“Removing this book is insulting to me and my fellow students,” Caison said. “We are not children; we are growing into young adults. Have faith in us that we can read this intellectually as a piece of literature.”

Caison said that despite the coarse language in the book and the difficult and mature themes, she felt it was important to her education.


Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or shickman@brunswickbeacon.com.