‘Kaffir Boy’ stirs up censorship talk at San Luis Obispo High School

Author of book with controversial passage plans to visit San Luis Obispo

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comOctober 16, 2010 

Anonymous complaints have sparked a rare meeting at San Luis Obispo High School on Monday that will determine whether a popular but controversial memoir will be removed from the school’s shelves.

Meanwhile, as a committee reviews the book, its author — who has seen his memoir banned elsewhere -— plans to speak about censorship in San Luis Obispo on Thursday.

“Kaffir Boy,” Mark Mathabane’s account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, has been part of the school’s curriculum for a decade.

But last spring, school district officials received anonymous letters complaining about a passage in the book, currently used in an honors world history course.

“There’s only one objectionable page that was cited in the letter,” said Kathryn Eisendrath Rogers, a member of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District board.

Specifically, on Page 72, there’s a scene where boys prostitute themselves for food. Because of complaints nationwide about that scene, the book was ranked as one of the 100 most challenged books in the past decade by the American Library Association.

While the author contends the scene illustrates the horrors of the era and demonstrates a lesson about peer pressure, dissenters claim its depiction of sodomy was too graphic.

The state Department of Education includes the book on its approved reading list, but it advises strong caution, recommending districts allow parental input on the book, school district Superintendent Eric Prater said.

While he doesn’t like the idea of heeding anonymous complaints, Prater said that state recommendation makes a hearing appropriate to give parents a say.

“I have faith in the process,” he said.

The review committee hearing the complaint, established by Principal Will Jones, consists of school officials, staffers, students and community members. The meeting, open to the public, will take place at the school at 3:30 p.m. Monday.

After reading the complaint, Eisendrath Rogers set out to find an abridged version of the book, which smoothes over Page 72. When she couldn’t find an abridged copy, she called the author.

“We had a wonderful conversation about what we thought was the importance of this book,” Eisendrath Rogers said.

While an abridged version would assuage most with concerns about the book, others say eliminating the unabridged version represents censorship.

“We’re old enough to read books like ‘Kaffir Boy,’ ” said Derek Chesnut, a San Luis Obispo High junior, who wrote about the controversy for the school newspaper, Expressions. A few complainers should not be allowed to make choices for all students, Chesnut said. “I think it’s offensive for parents to think it’s their responsibility to parent other kids and not their own,” he said. “You’re promoting ignorance.”

Even Prater, who is currently reading the book, sees “Kaffir Boy’s” relevance and would not have a problem with his 16-year-old son reading the unabridged version. But, he said, he wants to allow others with a more conservative view to voice their opinion.

“I’m hoping both sides show up to share or air their concerns,” he said.

While the committee’s recommendation will go to the principal and then to Prater, the superintendent said “the review committee in this case holds the water.”

That’s not passing the buck, he said. Given the state Department of Education’s recommendation about the book, he added, it makes sense to have a democratic outcome.

Though some are troubled merely by the challenge, it has had a positive outcome for “Kaffir Boy” supporters.

As Eisendrath Rogers spoke to Mathabane, she discovered he was coming to California on a lecture tour, so she asked if he would come to San Luis Obispo.

Mathabane eventually offered to speak for a portion of his normal fee. Then the high school, Eisendrath Rogers, and various Cal Poly departments chipped in to finance the free lecture about censorship, which takes place 7 p.m. Thursday in the Spanos Theatre at the university.

And, of course, the controversy has also prompted more people to read the book.

“It’s very powerful, and it’s a very intense book,” Eisendrath Rogers said. “It does offer an incredible perspective on the horrors of apartheid.”

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