From the Editor

The Freedom to Read

Fear will drive good teachers out of the school system and undermine people’s trust in public education.

By Cooper Levey-Baker March 1, 2023 Published in the March-April 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

A piece by Tampa artist Donna M. Richardson called Women of the Bluest Eye, featuring an accomanying quote by sixth-grade student Ojasvi “Oju” Ramani of Ashburn, Virginia, was vandalized in Bayfront Park on January 31, 2023.

I’ve been rereading Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye lately. It’s a book I first encountered in college, during a course on Black American literature that also covered writers like Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and Randall Kenan. But I picked up The Bluest Eye again the other day for the simple reason that lots of people hate it.

The book includes scenes of violence, abuse and rape, and examines themes like how white American beauty standards can lead to self-loathing among Black girls. Explaining the origins of the book in a 2004 interview, Morrison said, “I was deeply concerned about the feelings of being ugly. You’ve got the most vulnerable people in the world, which are children, female children, female Black children, who have never held center stage in anything. … I wanted to have a little hurt Black girl at the center of this story.”

Cooper Levey-Baker

Cooper Levey-Baker

Image: Karen Arango

The Bluest Eye has been a target for censors for decades and is often included in American Library Association lists of the books most frequently “challenged” by people who want them removed from library, school and university settings. Earlier this year, in Pinellas County, the book was removed from high school classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about it. (According to The Tampa Bay Times, parents were notified about the book’s content and students were offered an alternative book to read.) Around that same time, someone vandalized a poster titled Women of the Bluest Eye that had been erected in Sarasota’s Bayfront Park as part of the nonprofit Embracing Our Differences’ annual exhibit. In a statement accompanying her piece, artist Donna Richardson wrote that The Bluest Eye “resonated” with her “and millions of other little Black girls who struggled to fit the typical standard of beauty.”

Morrison’s novel is far from the only book being demonized in Florida these days. In Manatee and Duval counties, books were pulled from school shelves until they could be vetted to ensure they comply with new state laws pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republicans in the Florida Legislature. Among the titles that were pulled in Duval? Children’s books about baseball stars Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron. In Manatee County, classroom library shelves were cleared or covered with paper, and teachers were told they could be charged with a felony if they are found in violation of the new laws.

Do state leaders really care if your kid is reading these books? I doubt it. It’s about making you feel afraid. Such policies discourage teachers from addressing topics like racism or sexism in the classroom and suggest to parents that sending their kids to a public school is akin to shipping them off to an indoctrination camp. It’s that fear that worries me—the idea that we should be frightened of unorthodox ideas, ugly history and provocative art, and, especially, that we should be afraid of one another. Left to fester, that fear will drive good teachers out of the school system and undermine people’s trust in public education. I’d wager that’s the point.

Is The Bluest Eye upsetting? Of course. I was never assigned the book at Riverview High School when I went there in the ’90s, but I was exposed to plenty of other works that challenged my understanding of the world. Teachers gave me Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—novels that made me permanently associate books and reading with feelings of freedom and liberty. Those ideals are at risk in Florida today.

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