Defending Controversial Texts

Fortunately, as AP Literature teachers, most of us have the opportunity to choose which novels we teach our students, which can be both a blessing and a curse. What happens when a student or parent challenges a book? I’ve had to defend my novel choices several times and have found that the most effective argument is based on multiple premises.

Is the challenged text considered to be one of the books all students should read before college? Or one of the top 100 books of modern times? Has it won awards such as the Pulitzer, or has the author been awarded a Nobel Prize?Perhaps the challenged book has appeared as one of the texts referenced on previous AP exams? In Question 3 students have been asked to write on topics such as cruelty, death, suffering, and violence. If students have not read books containing such content, how would they be able to successfully respond to these prompts?

While accolades and previous AP prompts are helpful in trying to convince parents that their child will not be corrupted by the atrocities found within the pages, they may not be enough. Examine your reasons for picking the book in the first place. Finding a range of texts illustrating the spectrum of the human experience is a worthy goal in any literature course. Does the book contribute to students’ diverse reading experiences? Does the book allow them to see outside of their bubble into lives different from their own? Does the book raise awareness of prejudice and injustice, or promote equality and inclusion? Here is where your best argument lies.

Characters who endure hardships, but are able to overcome and persevere, create a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.  Students should be encouraged to examine texts in a cultural context to appreciate the diversity and complexity of world issues and to connect global ideas to their own experiences. What students can learn through literature is valuable as they grow and learn to be educated, well-rounded members of society. The nature of higher-level AP English classes is to make students question the inequities in the world and, as a result, develop a broader world view and sensitivity toward persons of different backgrounds and experiences.

Before you read, provide a disclaimer. Explain why they are reading the novel. Be up front that it contains violence, perhaps swearing or some disturbing scenes, and that the goal of reading and discussing the text is not to focus on these incidents themselves out of context, but to ascertain why the author chooses to include these elements of the novel. Encourage students to see past the shock value to the literary qualities. When students react to the text, praise them for being attentive readers and having the response that the author intended them to have. Being proactive helps to diminish the negative reactions. For example, before we begin Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I offer this disclaimer:

This novel is intense; there are some mature and disturbing scenes. Morrison did not write these scenes on a whim or to present them as “right” or to condone them. What she is trying to do is make you feel a reaction to her text. She wants you to be disgusted, outraged, and to have a powerful adverse reaction.

This is a story about slavery and the effects of slavery, a nightmare that we as a nation and culture cannot forget about. This novel is based on true events in the life of Margaret Garner and on the events in the lives of many slaves just like her. You can hate parts of this novel; and you should hate them; but we can’t turn our heads and pretend like these things didn’t happen. They did. They are woven into the fabric of our history, and sometimes we border on forgetting about this dark part of our country’s narrative. Today, we find it hard to comprehend how such atrocities happened, and we may not understand the evil nature of it. Morrison writes this story, which she calls “not a story to pass on” and compares it to “a bad dream,” to make us remember.

She dedicates the book to “Sixty Million and more,” an estimated number of people who died in slavery. Beloved’s character represents Sethe’s unnamed child, but also the nameless masses who died and remain forgotten. With this book, Morrison decrees that they are beloved as well.

I also include a brief statement in my AP course syllabus which states to students and parents the mature texts will be read and that alternative readings or any form of censorship will not be offered. Both parents and students sign it at the beginning of the year.

Lastly, you have to teach the book. The first year I assigned Beloved, I was terrified; I didn’t feel comfortable discussing (with my mostly conservative bunch) some of its more mature content. In that unit, I failed my students—they felt lost, I felt inept, and the book was not given its due. Since then, I’ve realized that students need guidance and I’m the one that has to give it to them. After failing the first time around, I learned a valuable lesson. Students aren’t going to always see past the horrors to accept the beauty. It is up to us to show it to them.

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