Sunday, February 06, 2005

Pummelled from the Right AND the Left, Chris Crutcher Speaks Out

I blogged about Chris Crutcher's meeting with Inez Tenenbaum in South Carolina the other day. Apparently, Ms. Tenenbaum refused to budge; his novel remains struck from the curriculum.

And here he is, under fire again, this time by the NAACP in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The group is calling for teacher Patricia Bouwhuis to be fired for using Crutcher's story, "Telephone Man," with her seventh graders.

The book will be officially challenged at the Grand Rapids board meeting tomorrow night.

"Telephone Man" is about an autistic boy growing up with a racist father. Because the boy has no concept of how provocative his father's words are, he repeats them in school. But in the end, he comes to realize that the African American children at his school have far more tolerance in their hearts than his father does.

Crutcher writes to the community about what happened here. Some excerpts:

I hate the words Telephone Man uses as much as any of you do. That’s why I put them in the story. They are the words of raw racism and they are depicted as such. The “n” word (and I use that euphemism only because it seems we have lost our capability to speak real truth) is probably the single most vile word in our nation’s historical vocabulary, a sadistic weapon of a word that has been used in this nation’s history like a hammer. You don’t hide a word like that. You expose it. You tell the truth about it. Unlike the people who are challenging the story, I have confidence in our children’s intellectual ability to understand that. ...

Most of the time I engage in this censorship battle with the conservative Christian right and I eagerly rise to it because I believe they want to take away our freedoms in the name of freedom. But the NAACP is an organization for which I have always held nothing but reverence. Their members stood resolute in the face of death during the fifties and sixties when our country was being torn apart because of our bigotry and when law enforcement in many parts of the country turned its back on the law and on basic human decency.

So my heart hammers in my throat when I have to say to Hazel Lewis, “This time I think you’re wrong. I think you read the words and didn’t read the story, and while I believe your heart and mind are in the right place, I also think you don’t trust our children’s capabilities for higher level thinking. ‘Telephone Man’ is about how bigotry flows down the generational river through innocence. It’s hard to imagine how you can go back over the sequence of the past few days’ events and call for Patricia Bouwhuis’ firing. I don’t know exactly what happened in the classroom, whether or not students registered discomfort, or what was said in preparation for the reading, but from all I’ve read I have to believe she brought the story into the classroom out of sensitivity, rather than insensitivity. I have never known your organization to be one that wasn’t active in the art of bringing together people with divergent backgrounds and views. The NAACP I know is about understanding. I should also say there are African American teachers all over this country who have lauded this and other of my stories.”

As I said, I normally have this fight with the conservative Christian right. When I talked to the Grand Rapids Press I mistakenly believed that was the case. I used the word “unapologetic” in my defense of “Telephone Man.” Now, knowing where the challenge came from, I remain unapologetic. “Telephone Man”, like at least five of my novels, is unflinchingly anti-racist. I trust the students of your school, including you seventh graders, to find that message in the story.

Please take the time to head over to Crutcher's site and read his full statement. It is quite a moving testament to anti-censorship.