Arundel couple fight to prohibit Angelou book Hearing set for Saturday on complaint by parents


Barry and Sharon Taylor of Edgewater never wanted to be the center of a storm over censorship and First Amendment rights, never set out to become arbiters of taste or curriculum. They just wanted to protect their daughter and two sons.

Their fight since last fall to get Maya Angelou's autobiographical "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" out of Anne Arundel County public school libraries and English classes has attracted national attention, though -- and criticism for them. They've been called book burners. Many who disagree with them see them as religious fanatics or bigots. They try not to think about that.

"It is against our beliefs that this book is available to kids," Barry Taylor said last week in the couple's first interview. "We have strong morals even though we are painted as strange people." Simply, they just don't like the book's profanity and descriptions of rape, masturbation and casual sex.

They'd hoped the school system would deal with their concerns. They have avoided speaking publicly except in May, when they presented their case to a group of administrators, teachers and students, who voted unanimously that the book should continue to be taught in ninth grade and offered as supplemental reading in 11th-grade classes.

On Saturday, the Taylors take their case before the school board in a proceeding that feels a lot to them like a trial. An interview was a rehearsal for that. They still refused to allow themselves to be photographed, to discuss the book in the presence of their children -- two of whom attend South River High School -- or to let the children's names be used.

"Yes, it's been a hassle," said Barry Taylor, sitting next to his wife in a living room decorated with their son's baseball trophies.

"We don't have highfaluting lawyers to handle all the paperwork, motions and exhibits we get in the mail from the school attorneys. We have tried to keep this low-keyed. We just want to handle this as parents."

The Taylors -- Barry, 41, runs an upholstery business and Sharon, 36, gave up an insurance career to raise her children -- became enmeshed in school politics in November when another South River High parent complained to the Capital newspaper in Annapolis about a book her child had been assigned. The Taylors questioned their ninth-grade son, who said he was reading "Caged Bird" too. As Barry Taylor worked evenings on chairs, his wife read it to him.

"I got to certain parts and I got up and said I couldn't read it out loud," she said. "I couldn't believe what was in it. It was so graphic. If [Angelou] had just said she had been raped, that was one thing, but to describe it in detail like that is another."

The couple wrote to their son's teacher -- Donna Mallow -- asking that he be assigned another book instead. They received a generic letter from Mallow addressed to all parents defending Angelou's use of literary devices and lessons applicable to today's youth.

"Yes this book tells of rape -- but the lesson Ms. Angelou sends is don't feel it is your fault and punish yourself but tell someone, get help, get support," Mallow wrote. "Yes this book tells of her first sexual experience, but she explains that sex is meaningless without love. Yes this book uses explicit language but only as it is used in colloquial speech and not as a sensational, tabloid ploy used in television and movies and even the Internet."

The Taylors disagreed.

Married for 18 years, they are both graduates of Anne Arundel County schools. They remember reading "Lord of the Flies," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Odyssey" in their classes -- books, they say, that imparted some of life's hard lessons without graphic scenes of child abuse and sex.

"It has got to be stopped at the door," Barry Taylor said. "If they can't use that language in the schools, then it can't be in the books."

Indeed, six passages that the Taylors say illustrate their problems with the book could not be reprinted in The Sun. They describe sexual activity and genitals, and use racial slurs.

The couple, members of Friendship Community Baptist Church, maintain that their religion has nothing to do with the battle against the book. They are not, they said, soldiers in a religious-right conspiracy to control curricula in public schools. They want the "Caged Bird" debate to center not on them, but on whether a 13-year-old should read the book. They said they have not sought advice from any organized groups, religious or otherwise.

"We are trying to separate church and state," Barry Taylor said. "I'd rather not separate it; it is the core of our beliefs. But if we talk about religion, it gets blown out of proportion and we get labeled."

The couple said they do not believe they are trying to impose their values on others. While they may be the only ones to file a complaint in Anne Arundel, they have a petition for the school board signed by 260 other parents who agree "Caged Bird" is inappropriate for young teen-agers.

"We are not alone in this," Barry Taylor said. "Other people feel the same way about this. No one should just cater to one person in this type of issue."

Cynthia Robinson, associate director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, said the Taylors' battle is not unique. Angelou's book has been a focus of protest since 1983, and over the past two years it has been the most frequently targeted book by unhappy parents who believe it is profane and preaches hatred against whites.

A spokesman from the People for the American Way said 28 protests have been lodged against the book since the 1991-1992 school year. In only three has the book been removed from a school curriculum.

Howard County ninth-graders are assigned "Caged Bird." It is not taught in Baltimore and Carroll counties. It is on a recommended reading list for high school seniors in Prince George's County. Teachers in Baltimore can assign it in ninth grade, and some Harford County high schools use it.

During Saturday's hearing, school lawyers plan to show the board a list of counties where the book is used as well as question witnesses who favor the book.

The Taylors are skeptical of the process and of the school board. When the couple learned that board member Vaughn Brown made a statement in support of the book to a reporter, they asked that he disqualify himself from the hearing. He has not.

If the board votes to keep the book in Anne Arundel schools, the Taylors may appeal to the State Board of Education.

They expect they will keep fighting. "All of this is going to boil down to who has more rights," Barry Taylor said, "the educators or parents."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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