Literature reflects reality, and reality isn’t always pretty. But that cannot and should not ever be a reason to shy away from raw, authentic literature. Children do not know everything about the world, but they are not stupid. They know a lot more than most people think. When we shy away from difficult language or conversations, we cripple young people for the future. Life is full of tough conversations, and what better way to approach them than through award-winning literature?
In five years of teaching “Buck” — a memoir written by M.K. Asante Jr., an associate professor at Morgan State University — to my freshmen at Digital Harbor High School, I have never had a complaint. I have worked with colleagues to ensure that we take the most appropriate approach toward teaching the themes within the text. We do not read chapters or passages that contain material deemed unsuitable for freshmen. Instead, we examine the ways that violence and exposure to countless challenges shape the life of Malo, the memoir’s protagonist.
Students then write their own memoirs in which they explore the myriad ways in which Baltimore has shaped their upbringing. These memoirs are stunningly powerful, heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Students who generally refuse to even pick up a pencil will spend week after week producing 10 or more pages about their lives, experiences and journeys to adolescence. They write poignantly about childhoods shaped by drugs, violence, incarceration and death, and they use “Buck” as a tool to begin thinking about the ways in which education can help them overcome many of the barriers in their lives. And now, that tool has been taken from them: Late last month, following a parent complaint, district representatives said “Buck” would be replaced with another text because it was “not part of the approved curriculum.”
When we take away literature that reflects the realities of many students’ lives, we say to them that their voices do not matter. We don’t question the reading of “Unbroken,” in which a man has graphic intercourse with a duck. We don’t question the reading of “Night,” in which a boy is slowly hung to death, people are beaten, tortured and abused, and babies are thrown in the air as target practice. We don’t question “Like Water for Chocolate” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” both of which contain explicit sexuality. Nor should we. These are profoundly moving pieces of literature that can change lives and open doors for young people in Baltimore City. But why do we question and ultimately ban “Buck,” a critically-acclaimed coming of age story?
Anyone who has ever read “Buck” knows that the inclusion of chapters about statutory rape and the school-to-prison pipeline serve to bring up discussions around difficult topics such as misogyny, oppression, racism and violence. When we refuse to allow students to deal with these complex topics, we shelter them from their real world. Many students deal with these issues daily. Others do not, especially in a school as diverse as Digital Harbor. However, even if students are not familiar with this life, they can benefit from seeing and learning about another world and beginning to empathize with those who do experience it. Taking away another diverse voice in literature removes another opportunity to learn to empathize.
The irony of removing this text is that the second half of the book takes us through Mr. Asante’s transformation from living the life of drugs, strip clubs and violence, to finding his voice and understanding the power of words. He loses himself in the worlds of Orwell, Whitman, Hughes and Baldwin. He finds freedom and hope in words and dreams to use his talents to help others find their purpose. What a powerful message this could be for students on the verge of adulthood in Baltimore City Public Schools.
Over the past five years, I have watched students find inspiration in the brilliant pages of this memoir. But now, students will not get to experience the power of his words. They will not see a man fall in love with literature. They will not see him find a purpose bigger than himself. And they will not be inspired to pen their own moving, passionate stories. I will still find a way to reach my most challenging students, because that’s what good teachers do. But I wonder how many stories will go untold now that “Buck” will go unread.
Joshua Ober (email@example.com) teaches at Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore City.