This story surprised and disappointed me.

A Stanislaus County school board banned a celebrated but controversial piece of Chicano literature from its high school classrooms this week because trustees and the superintendent believe “Bless Me, Ultima” contains too much profanity.


“There was excessive vulgarity or profanity used throughout the book,” said [Superintendent] Fauss, head of the nearly 2,700-student Newman Crows Landing Unified School District. “The context didn’t . . . make it acceptable.”

I had to read Bless Me, Ultima in high school and I don’t recall all that much profanity. More importantly, I’m not sure that I would have even noticed the profanity after, say, the necrophilia in The House of the Spirits. I mention the two books in comparison because we had a complaint the year we read them. The issue, however, wasn’t profanity, but witchcraft. Apparently the magic in those two books had offended the religious sensibilities of some student or parent. We had to participate in a survey on whether we had been offended by the content of the books – to the best of my knowledge no one I spoke to had been.

Even then I found the entire process ridiculous. We were studying a range of Latin American literature, and spent considerable time on ‘magical realism’. The complaint was focused on one of the key literary elements of the genre and, thus, the primary reason we were reading it.

I believe that this is, to some degree, the case here as well. Despite my personal dislike for the book, Bless Me, Ultima has two really redeeming characteristics: 1) it discusses Chicano society in America, and 2) it is a bildungsroman about growing up in that society. Profanity is a part of adult life; a story of growing up that ignores profanity is like one that ignores sex – unrealistic. But more importantly, dealing with profanity, or sex, or the reconciliation of disparate aspects of your heritage is difficult, and literature helps to guide us through the process. We make children read books for more reasons than to expose them to ‘the great works’ or to teach them literary analysis. We make them read books as a way of conveying understanding beyond their current experience. Unfortunately, a lot of those experiences are unpleasant. But protecting children from those experiences, even in literature, is like abstinence-only education. It fails to prepare children for life.

Published in: on February 7, 2009 at 4:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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