Category Archives: racism

Modernizing vs Censoring: Where’s the line?

Hello folks — yes I am back and feeling much better, thanks! Looking forward to a new, improved year – this time hopefully without the bike and car accidents that plagued 2010.

——-

What do we do with a “classic” work when the connotation of some of the language shifts over time?

Take Shakespeare, for example. Take high school English, for example. Many students in the Anglo-American world are required to read something by Shakespeare in their high school English curriculum. Few of them actually read the whole original text, at least not without a “translation” into more modern English nearby. Many watch film adaptations along with reading a given play. While I’m sure there is some controversy among Shakespeare purists, one of the widely-celebrated teachable aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the adaptability of the stories to multiple contexts, despite the inaccessibility of the now-esoteric original language.

What about a more recent example, though, in which the language is still intelligible, but the cultural context has changed, making some formerly “acceptable” language now gravely offensive? Yes, I’m talking about Huck Finn, and the current debate over the suitability of NewSouth Books’ new edition of the Twain classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which has been either modernized or censored, depending on whom you ask.

I have to admit, I’m not as thoroughly offended by this new edition as I feel like I’m expected to be.

I know that schools can go to ridiculous extents to sanitize works in an attempt to keep them palatable to some faction of their community. (How well do I know this? I played Sandy in a Grade 9 production of Grease in which we had to cut out all smoking, sex/pregnancy, and dropping out of school – leaving basically no plot, just girl meets boy and oh yeah a nice car.) On the other hand, I also know that words can feel violent and contribute to an environment of harassment and oppression, and as a member of a group with a lot of white-skin privilege I’m not ready to jump on a bandwagon that says we should make our students – especially students of colour – read the n-word over & over in an assigned book – especially if assigned by a white teacher.

Ideally, Huck Finn would always be taught in the classroom by a compassionate and brilliant Twain scholar with incredible historical insight and the ability to guide students through the nuances of a novel that documents some terrible, violent elements of US history. But in reality, we all know that’s not always the case.

Schools, just like other institutions in society, often perpetrate the experience of violence and oppression upon participants (in this case students). Teachers are just as likely to be racist and sexist and homophobic as anyone else. I’m not sold on the necessity for schools to require the original exact n-word-inclusive Twain wording, when they so often offer abridged, translated or otherwise modernized versions of other works. If a particular school/system wants to take a stand on only assigning original wording of literary texts, more power to them. If that’s something they feel strongly about, there are many such editions of Huck Finn available, and hopefully the adoption of such principles would inspire lots of discussion of the historical context of every non-contemporary text.

In sum, I think the question of “sanitizing” or “updating” the language of a work depends greatly on what the purpose of one’s use of said classic is. Is it to introduce students to the classic text or the works of that author? Grant them some sort of cultural literacy? Understand what makes the texts we have deemed “great” work? Serve as an entre into greater discussions of history, culture, and the big questions? Produce literary scholars and critics? Ideally, school assignments would do all of these, but at core I think a lot would be happy to settle for doing a good job of the first couple or so. If teachers are unable to use (or appropriately use) the original text, and if a more palatable edition makes that possible, so be it — as long as it is obvious that the revised editions are not the original, and the original is widely available.

As an immigrant library student, I was fascinated at exploring Canadian culture through children’s literature. One text (or rather, texts) that really captured my interest was Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s In Search of April Raintree. I really wrestled with her decision to create a revised version for use in schools. I searched and searched for evidence of coercion, of censorship, in this revision, but everything I could find indicated that Mosionier was perfectly okay with it. Her current website (linked above)  proudly lists the three different editions of April Raintree, with their different intended audiences. Researching April Raintree really made me question my ability, as a white, Western, school-type-literate person, to understand what textual authenticity meant in cultural context that weren’t my own. And that’s okay.

Now, Mark Twain/Samuel Clements was white, and isn’t alive anymore to give or decline approval of new editions of his works. But the story of this revision isn’t so much about his cultural context as that of kids of colour who are being assigned to read Huck Finn today. I haven’t yet come across many African-American voices sounding in on this controversy, but I’d be really interested to hear various cultural interpretations of this revision, because the one or two I’ve been seeing don’t seem to be coming from this perspective.

And the line between “bad” censorship of a text and “good” modernizing for accessibility…well, I think it moves depending on where you’re standing.

-Greyson

ETA- NewSouth has responded in the comments of PW, and links to the book’s introduction,which discusses the controversy about the language change.

ETA #2 (Jan 6) – The NY Times has hosted a series of “debaters” writing to discuss this revised edition. Among the voices there, I recommend Paul Butler’s Why Read that Book?, who expressed the kind of sentiment I was intending to get at, but in a more concise and eloquent manner. I also recommend reading Thomas Glave’s Obscuring the Past, even though he doesn’t agree with what I wrote above.

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How times change: Finally a gay character in Archie

A number of years ago, when I was on the teen librarian track, I decided to explore the world of graphic novels. I’d never really read comics that weren’t featured in the newspaper before, but I knew they were growing in popularity, especially among youth.

This exploration led to a paper I wrote for Ann Curry‘s intellectual freedom class (one of my best and most useful library school classes), and eventually published a revision of in Collection Building. The paper was about censorship of GLBTQ content in graphic novels/comics for youth, and it taught me a lot about comparative Canadian-US history (especially regarding obscenity laws) as well as the comics publishing world.

You can’t research the history of comics in North America without learning about Archie. One of the things I learned along the way was that Archie is the apple pie of comic books. Archie is to kids’ comics as The Family Circus is to the newspaper funny pages — that is to say: benign, kind of boring, but “safe” according to certain centre-right societal norms. Archie was (and as far as I know still is) one of the only comics publishers to still carry the Comics Code Authority‘s seal of approval (designed in the 1950’s as a sign of wholesomeness in the face of concerns that comics were turning boys into sociopaths and criminals, and mostly abandoned by today’s publishers).

However, the writers of Archie have been shaking things up in the formerly homogeneous fictional town of Riverdale lately. First there was all the  hubbub about an Archie engagement. Then an interracial dating relationship (a huge deal in the world of Archie comics, which has put the kibosh on such storylines before) in the current issue. And now, apparently, the world of Archie will be getting it’s first gay character. The Archie fan forums are abuzz with the news.

Beyond inching Archie slightly closer to the modern era, and gratifying some unknown number of folks who write gay Archie fanfic (of which there is an impressive amount – I had no idea), the inclusion of a gay character in Archie comics really makes a statement that a gay character can be part of a wholesome comic world (you know, if, as in Archie’s world, he is an upstanding, straight-looking, blonde, white guy, at least).

Okay, so it’s incremental change. Reeeeally incremental. But, honestly, 4 or 5 years ago when I was writing my paper on queer content in kids’ comics and censorship, I never would have expected Archie to feature a gay character this soon. People challenge comics in library collection a lot, because they are visual. A male-male kiss depicted in Archie (not that I expect new Riverdale High student Kevin to have a boyfriend anytime soon, but the door is now open) would be a BIG DEAL. For uber-wholesome Archie to carry feature a heterosexual interracial kiss on the cover and now introduce a gay character…in the world of comics read by little kids, the change this represents should not be underestimated.

-Greyson

ps – I remain a casual reader of comics & graphic novels (although I never did manage to develop a taste for recreational reading of superhero comics or most manga, nor for the blandness of Archie comics), and am currently pretty excited at the boom in really great graphic novels or graphic-novel hybrids for pre-adolescents. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out Sticky Burr, Baby Mouse, and The Fog Mound asap!

ETA – A student emailed me to let me know about this well-written Slate article on the topic of the gay Archie character.

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Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, racism, school libraries, youth

Anti-ethnic penguin update

I have received a reply to my query about the “anti-ethnic” allegations against “And Tango Makes Three” (for background see previous post on the topic).

The ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom was kind enough to explain to me that the OIF compiles their reports based on both newspaper reports of book challenges and the forms people send in when an item is challenged. My understanding from the email is that the only info that can be made public from the forms (most is confidential) is: the state and type of institution in which the challenge was made, item title, and the categories of the challenge. Hopefully we can find out a little bit more about the specific challenge(s) in which “anti-ethnic” was selected as an objection to “Tango” (e.g. did someone just challenge in every category possible, or what).

Second, Angela from the OIF also gave me some more examples of books that have been challenged under “anti-ethnic” grounds, such as: The Good Earth, Little Black Sambo, The Summer of My German Soldier, Song of Solomon (which happens to be one of my favourite books of all time), Little House on the Prairie, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. You might notice that all of those books, unlike “Tango” actually deal with ethnic and/or racialised portrayals of human beings. In my follow up query I have also asked whether she knows of any items other than “Tango” and “Maus” that have non-human characters and have been challenged as anti-ethnic.

Finally, I’ve gotten quite curious about the evolution of the ALA challenge report form. How did the categories develop/evolve? I understand that there is no guidance as to how to interpret the different challenge categories, but I am now quite curious as to how the form was made, revised, etc. I’ve asked the OIF, but I know they are quite busy at ALA central, so if anyone reading this has any scoop on the history of the report forms, please let me know.

-Greyson

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Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, racism, Uncategorized, youth

And Tango Makes Three: anti-ethnic penguins?

It was recently called to my attention that on the ALA’s list of the “10 Most Challenged Books,” And Tango Makes Three is listed as being challenged not only for the to-be-expected reasons such as “homosexuality” (although at least one of those penguins could probably be considered bi), being “anti-family” (ironic, yes, when alleged regarding a book about a young family, but not unexpected), and “religious viewpoint” (because we all know those penguins can have pretty strong views on religion), but also as being. among other things, anti-ethnic.

Anti-ethnic, I thought.  Hmm, that seems odd.It’s a non-fiction story about penguins. I wasn’t aware that penguins even *had* ethnicities.What does anti-ethnic mean, anyway? Is it the same as racism?

And so began my little search, which is currently in-process.

1) Anti-ethnic?

The source of the information that Tango is allegedly anti-ethnic is the aforementioned ALA list, which says:


The “10 Most Challenged Books of 2007” reflect a range of themes, and comprises the following titles:

1. “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell

Reasons: Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

Interestingly, if you dig up the 2006 top 10 challenged books list, Tango had a much shorter list of offenses:

The “10 Most Challenged Books of 2006” reflect a range of themes, and consist of the following titles:

* “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, for homosexuality, anti-family, and unsuited to age group

From this, I assume anti-ethnic must be a new-ish allegation (along with religious viewpoint and sexism).

2) Where did the term “anti-ethnic” come from?

Source of the allegation documentation pinned down, I wondered if perhaps “anti-ethnic” was just something someone made up in a fit of anger about the book.  “It’s not just homosexual and against my religious viewpoint, it’s also, uh, em, sexist!  And…uh….anti-ethnic!  Yeah, anti-ethnic, that’s what.”

However, I found “anti-ethnic” as a checkbox category on the ALA book challenge form (PDF here).

Anti-ethnic’s checkbox on this form is a separate category from racism, which has its own checkbox. Now I really want to know how this distinction was drawn, and how library staff all over the continent are supposed to know which box to check for what type of complaint!

And I am still curious about what makes penguins anti-ethnic.

3) What else is “anti-ethnic”?

I thought that maybe if I found what other books had been challenged as anti-ethnic, perhaps that would shed some light on the allegation.It turns out that anti-ethnic is not a common challenge category, comparatively.  However, there are other examples.

Such as Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, challenged as anti-ethnic in Oregon.

And Tintin – specifically The Adventures of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh in Canada. (Interestingly the same 2007 Canadian survey lists Tango under the categories of homosexuality, anti-family, religious viewpoint & age inappropriate, but not anti-ethnic.  Maybe next year?)

I’ve sent a query to the ALA OIF and will update when I hear back about the detials of the anti-ethnic allegation in general and as it pertains to penguins in particular.

-Greyson

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Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, public libraries, publishing, racism, school libraries, youth

Tomorrow’s History & the Role of Public Libraries

I’ve been thinking about digitization and history; specifically the trusim that history is written by the victors (aka the privileged), and what that means for our current era.

With literacy and war-conquests-slash-oppression on the part of literate groups, orality became devalued as “official” history in most of the mainstream, dominant, Western societies.  Non-literate or illiterate people and groups have largely either been written out or written *about* in what we now deem to be literature and history. (Please forgive my rushed-through and simplistic history of the conquests of literacy-based-culture here…this is just the context part of the post!) With mass printing, the privilege bar to produce, distribute and preserve was reinforced, perhaps nudged a bit, right?  Certainly by the 20th century just writing something down was rarely enough to incorporate it into official narratives of “history”; the writing had to be adjudicated and then reproduced by a professional publisher, preserved by an archivist, or otherwise selected by someone with societal power.

I went to undergrad in 1994.  It was a heady, exciting time, especially if you worked in a library, as I was fortunate enough to do.  The Internet had just gone public!  Netscape and Mozilla were battling it out!  Web 2.0 was already being foreshadowed by innovators like Crayon (remember CraYoN – Create your own newspaper?  Early mashup, back in ‘95!). All the street-level activists in my circles were xeroxing radical zines on their temp job office photocopiers, and the Internet was going to democratize the world! Anyone could publish their work and reach the whole world! Well, anyone in the portions of the world that had electricity at least.  Or at least the literate portions of the world that had electricity…

< – -time warp here- – >

Now, we have these amazing Open Access repositories forming, and we have increasing numbers of people creating and sharing content online. I’m particularly excited about and interested in the community-based archiving projects that are popping up. (**Note to self: write a post about some of these cool projects soon**)

BUT, I have a big concern. I think we’ve all outgrown the “the Internet is going to democratize the world!” phase by now (yes? no?), but I don’t think we’re paying adequate attention to the fact that this migration of “scholarship” and preservation – basically the bulk of what will be tomorrow’s “history”  – is reinforcing the exclusive nature of historical preservation.

We are beginning to see documentation of the same type of hierarchical dynamics in online content generation as we do in printed matter.  I’ve seen recent scholarship focused on the male-female gender gap both in scholarly self-archiving and in creative digital media sharing.

I know most of us aren’t purposefully torching the libraries of our enemies and competitors.  And I don’t want to question the very sensible move of scholarly communication into online, open access format.  But I would like to talk with more folk about how we can hark back to our idealistic 1994 mentality and regain those ideals, if not the naïveté, relating to the potential that digitization holds for the whole of society.

Academic libraries are working fast and furious toward digitally archiving their institutions’ scholarly output.  I think there’s a place for public libraries to serve an organizing function in the community in terms of creating public history. A public history project, perhaps.

Public History Project…I kind of like the sound of that.  Too bad the acronym’s already pretty much “taken.”  Maybe if we slap a “Canadian” on the front end or some such…

Of course, it’s easy to spout off about, and much harder to actually figure out the nuts & bolts: How to you ensure broad community representation?  What do you do with communities that don’t want to participate? How do you select what is of long-term value – or do you at all?  Is that up to the communities themselves, perhaps?  Do you allocate more space to groups under-represented in formal histories and scholarly communities?  Is there content that is unacceptable? What about illegal stuff?  Who’s responsible for the maintenance?  And where does all of this…stuff…reside, anyway?  What formats can reasonably be accepted and preserved? Should the government be involved in this?  What about private funding?  How do you keep things impartial?  Should you strive to keep things impartial?

Despite all of this chaos in my mind about the details, I do think that public libraries are uniquely suited to facilitate a public history project: something technically based on open source software, and developed in coalition with community groups.  And, frankly, perhaps in collaboration with academic libraries, who are doing TONS of work already getting Institutional Repositories up and running.

What are your thoughts?

-Greyson

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Filed under academic libraries, archives, censorship, community development, digitization, gender, globalization, media democracy, OA, preservation, public libraries, publishing, racism, technology

Real Parents and Ideal Patrons

I`ve had several people ask me to expand on my third point from my Why I`m not a children`s librarian post. Here`s a little bit more on the topic of our frequent shortfalls in achieving social justice orientation in youth services, and my personal experiences with librarians shaming me without realising it.

“If their kid is at daycare all day, the daycare provider is really the parent anyway.”

My blood ran cold when she said that.

I thought of my son, in daycare at that very moment so I could be there in that library meeting, and held my breath as well as my tongue.

Not that I hadn’t heard statements like that before. Not that I considered myself especially vulnerable to such judgments.

I just wasn’t expecting it there – from a “friend” and colleague of mine, at a meeting of a team of children’s librarians specifically dedicated to providing culturally appropriate and accessible outreach programming for socially excluded children and families. The topic of discussion was how to extend outreach library services to go past the child to influence the whole family, so that parents might, say, bring their kids to the library.

And what I really didn’t expect, from that group in particular, was the fact that when one member said something outrageous like the above statement, no one else in the room spoke up. To the day I don’t really know if it was the dreaded librarian “niceness” striking again (inhibiting our ability to hold ourselves/each other accountable), or whether no one else thought she was being offensive.

I was a student intern. They were allowing me to sit in on their meeting, so I could learn. I didn’t feel like I could interrupt and intervene at that time. But I certainly did learn.

***

The dominant library paradigm holds very particular cultural conceptions of the ownership/belonging/responsibility of children. These notions are largely based in euro-colonial and neo-liberal values of the family as isolated, self-sufficient unit.

Even in our progressive and outreach programs, are we really listening to our communities, parents, families, and empowering them to make our services their own?

***

“The best library users, the ones we love to work with, are the parents who already bring their children to storytime. They are the ideal. I love to work with them.”

A library school instructor, one whom I sincerely like and respect, said this in front of a class I took.

Again, I was floored.

My child has never been to a library storytime. I have been a working parent since he was 2 weeks old, first lugging him on my back to my office, and then, too soon for my liking, sending him to daycare. My local library branch does not hold weekend storytimes for working parents. Even the summer reading club events are during weekday workdays, much to my child’s dismay.

I always garnered compliments from my library supervisors, but they don’t know my dirty secret – that I am The Non-Ideal Parent as a patron.

Shh…don`t tell!

***

We are beginning to acknowledge that “the ideal patron” is a problem – that this notion is culturally biased and exclusive; that we should be questioning it. I say this because we as a discipline have published papers to this effect, bestowed honours upon some individuals who have championed this message, and sometimes even committed funding to novel projects that work toward a more just community ownership of libraries.

But trickle down takes a long time, when it works. Will the status quo for plain old regular librarians – ones not leading special programs or “moving and shaking” their institutions – ever change?

***

Oh, but I didn’t mean you. Your son is wonderful, so smart.

Yes, and I don’t “look Jewish,” right? Let me guess, some of your best friends are black and gay?

Putting down who I am, my history and identity, and then telling me I am better than everyone else like me is not a complement.

I am not an exception.

Or rather, we are all exceptions.

I am a bit uncommon, in that I was a low-income single parent who went back to school and became a librarian. But I was certainly not the only one who met that profile in my library school intake of 40 people.

Really, it is highly likely that I am only unusual in following this path because of my privilege. Coming from a family with higher education and economic privilege, It was relatively easy to make the decision to go to grad school and change my situation. I was able to see that option and take the necessary path to get there, yes. However, the important part of this story is not so much how I got where I am now, but what I know of where I was a few years ago.

I know, I know, I’m different from all the other Black/Jewish/queer/Asian/poor/Latina/whatever people. The other daycare parents. You didn’t mean that slur to apply to me.

Isn’t that line getting old by now? Isn’t it one libraries shouldn’t be using anyway?

-Greyson

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Filed under community development, LIS education, public libraries, racism, The Profession, youth

Social Justice in The American Archivist (!)

I’ve been home with the flu, which has provided time to catch up on some reading (ok, also television. But that’s not for this blog.) The latest issue of The American Archivist crossed my desk about a week ago, and I was pleased to see an article worth writing about here: Randall Jimerson’s “Archives for All: Professional Responsibility and Social Justice.”

But first, a note. I’d love to link to this article here, but despite the fact that this is supposed to be the first issue of AA published online, I can’t find the online content anywhere. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the archivists, but I had no success finding their new online holdings.

Even if the article is available digitally, it’s still locked down for three years to subscribers (SAA members). Because it’s not widely available, I think it’s even more important to draw attention to Jimerson’s article. Jimerson is a former president of the Society of American Archivists and the editor of one of the major anthologies used in archival education. The fact that he’s writing about social justice and archives is a big step for the Archival Establishment in the U.S. (notoriously slow to wake up to archives and social justice – the Australians and Canadians are way out ahead of us.) So, first, three cheers for a social justice article in The American Archivist!

Jimerson addresses some aspects of social justice in archives quite well. He’s eloquent and thorough on archives’ role in accountability: a hot topic right now considering ongoing U.S. government recordkeeping scandals. He also revisits amazing and important work done by U.S. and international archivists, including ongoing attempts to use records to hold the U.S. government responsible for the Tuskegee syphilis study, and Verne Harris’ work using records to bring justice to oppressed groups after apartheid in South Africa.

Jimerson also makes a great argument against the supposed, impossible neutrality of archivists and archivists. He couches this argument, however, in a discussion of the difference between neutrality and “objectivity.” This difference seems a bit contrived to me. Jimerson would like to see archivists be objective rather than neutral, but the small difference between these terms seems like a semantic distinction that will not translate well into practice. Archival objectivity may be just as impossible as archival neutrality. I’d like to see archivists own their biases, limited standpoints, and political agendas, and better, mitigate them by increasing non-archivist participation in records collection and description. I’m not sure that calling for ‘objectivity’ is so different from calling for neutrality.

My major criticism of the article, however, arises when Jimerson gets to the “diversity” part of his platform. Jimerson calls for creating “racial, ethnic and community-based repositories” (p. 266) and “collecting and preserving the records of ordinary people,” (p. 269) which I support and advocate. But creating more collections that document people of color is the end of Jimerson’s vision of diversity. There is no talk of the marginalization of existing “diverse” collections within current repositories; of the political economy of funding for “diverse” collections; of the power imbalances when outsider archivists decide what records to collect and describe; of the ethics of removing collections from creating communities and placing them in elite institutions. There is also no discussion of documenting the ever-shifting nature of race, ethnicity and identity (hardly static entities), no discussion of democratizing participation with archival materials, and no discussion of the risks of tokenizing through “diversity” collecting.

Calling for “diversity” is not a nuanced view of archival social justice; it’s an easy platitude. Archivists must move away from advocating diversity in favor of rethinking and transforming archival practice. We must question – and then reconfigure – entrenched structures of inequitable cultural collection, description, and preservation.

-Katie

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Filed under archives, racism, The Profession