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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Book?
When battles over "bad" words reveal worse intentions
“Is she Black?” I asked.
As the lone non-person-of-color in my house, I routinely set my family on edge when I ask questions like this—especially when they sense one of my privileged-feminst-Gex-Xy whitesplanations coming on.
But as my husband read us an article about local citizens objecting to the inclusion of American Street in our public high school English curriculum, no one objected to my questions.
After all, we all recognized a familiar pattern.
According to the article, the objections to the book were because of “reading level” (which, as a kidlit author, don’t even get me started), because of certain scenes, but mostly because of the 350-odd “bad” words in a sea of 75,000 good (?) ones.
However, we’ve lived, watched, listened, and read long enough to understand that reading levels (again, ugh), scenes, and language are rarely actually the issues.
And so, I asked again: Is the writer Black?
A quick Google showed that indeed the author, Ibi Zoboi, is Black, Haitian, Immigrant, Female.
I ordered American Street and read it in a weekend.
Turns out, it is an “easy” (again, deep breathing) read. There are scenes. And there is language.
Beautiful language. Salty language. Creole language. English language. Spooky language. Abusive language. Critical language. Polite language. Family language.
Language. Language. Language. As so often happens in books.
But just as the presence of a penis and a butt do not make Michelangelo’s David pornography, nor does the presence of certain words or scenes make a book profane.
Indeed, the brew from the cauldron of all those concerns—that reading level, those scenes, and that language—casts a gorgeous story of Haiti, of Detroit, of immigration and detention, of spirituality and faith.
American Street is a celebration of all the United States has to offer (until it won’t or doesn’t), of complicated—but still—families, of privilege and underprivilege, of hope, of school, of drugs, and of love and violence in all their heartbreaking, devastating, and powerful forms.
It’s a great book. (Confession: Any author who describes a high school as a “haunted castle” has my heart.)
I recommended American Street to my kids—and would recommend it to anyone, say eighth-grade and up. If pressed, I might offer a “trigger warning” about moments of abuse, gun violence, and indeed the language if one absolutely cannot tolerate a book where 0.5% of the words are “bad.” (There is also sex—I think. Still not totally sure. Artfully written!).
But I recommend it because like so many great stories, American Street makes us care about complicated people and complicated situations and gets us dreaming of and moving toward something better for us all.
And that, of course, is the problem with the book.
While certainly some folks object to books based on reading levels or scenes or language (and people of all political persuasions, races, ethnicities, and perspectives do this), that’s not the trend we’re seeing in this country (it’s not just Florida, folks!).
Violent moments and F-bombs are not why books like this are topics du jour at local Republican meetings.
No, the fear that book-banners and school-board protesters have is not that public school freshfolk will be subjected to “swear words.” Gasp!
The fear is that reading books like this, hearing stories like this, might move those students. Might shape them. Might inspire them. Might enrage or uplift them.
The fear is that conversations might happen.
Understanding might rise.
Neighbor-love might break out.
Healing might come.
Power might shift.
Power might shift.
Power might shift
And we sure as eff* don’t want that!
And by “we” I mean, those for whom this American life is so perfectly crafted.
Those who stand to lose if the oppressed, the excluded, the underserved and overlooked find the understanding and equality they (we) seek.
Those in power have a lot to lose if our society truly loves, truly understands, truly repents, truly heals, and becomes truly equal and free. If we become more Jesus-y.
This has been true since Jesus. It’s been true since the Founding Fathers.
It was true during slavery, in Reconstruction, during Jim Crow, in the Civil Rights movement.
It was true back in the 1980s, when we freaked out about N.W.A.’s “F*** Tha Police.” Rather than listen to the message, rather than consider the pain and power of the folk song (which it is), we cried about “The language! The language!” Our concern was how dare you speak of the police that way. Not, how dare police treat fellow humans that way. But I digress.
It was true when a church elder confronted me about the trouble with my “appreciation” of liberation theology. Liberation theology—the theology of the Black, the brown, the women (the queer—though I didn’t bring this up at the time), the theology of those who believe the Bible when it calls God a Liberator—was dangerous, the elder said, not because it was blasphemous or idolatrous or led me astray from the heart of God. The concern was not for my spirit—but my politics. Liberation theology, the elder said, led to—and I quote—socialism.
It was true when we just learned that Taylor University fired Prof. Julie Brown, because of “complaints about assigned readings on racial justice”—the most troubling being a citation of historian Jemar Tisby, the Black author of the amazing, The Color of Compromise, on her syllabus.
I’m sure the defense of her firing will ultimately be that it was about reading levels, scenes, language—or, of course, socialism. Because it always is.
*So, why if I don’t find language to be that big of a deal do I not write out the words. Great question with a pretty simple answer: When I’m not spouting off here, I write for children—young children. Though most kids are not looking up author Substacks, if they do, I’d rather not be the one to introduce them to those words. So why don’t I care about freshfolk in high school seeing these words? Because by forteen or fifteen, they know those words. They use those words. Heaven help us, they might even live those words.
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