San Luis Obispo High School decides not to ban ‘Kaffir Boy’

Despite containing a passage that graphically details sexual assault, a book about apartheid will not be banned from San Luis Obispo High School, a review committee unanimously decided Monday.

While the book, “Kaffir Boy” by Mark Mathabane, has been taught at the school for more than a decade, there have never been complaints about it until this past spring, honors world history teacher Carrie Zinn said.

In fact, librarian Vicki Carroll added, a copy of the book has been in the library for a long time with little notice.

“Nobody has read it in years,” she said. “Until now.”

Controversy arose when anonymous letters complaining about “Kaffir Boy” were sent to Zinn, school administrators and the school board. The letters complained specifically about a single page describing boys prostituting themselves for food.

While the state Department of Education recommends the book, it does so with caution, suggesting schools invite parental views — which is why the San Luis Obispo High administration arranged for the hearing.

Still, the review committee wasn’t merely an advisory group. It had authority to ban the book, offer an alternative with an abridged version or take no action.

Zinn said she introduced “Kaffir Boy” after honors students asked to be challenged more. Had parents complained about the book to her personally, she said, she would have made arrangements for the complainant’s child.

“And that just didn’t happen — and here we all are,” Zinn said.

After the complaint was received, the district assigned Principal Will Jones to create a review committee. The seven-person group, consisting of staff, students and community members, first heard input from the 50 people who crammed into one of the high school’s classrooms.

The audience unanimously favored keeping the book, both in the library and as a part of the honors class curriculum. When a committee member asked if the anonymous letter writer was in the audience, no one responded.

Some of those at the meeting complained that a single anonymous parent should not be allowed to cause such a stir.

A few said high school students were old enough to handle the language used — one student suggested she heard similar language daily. And a couple of teachers expressed concern that banning “Kaffir Boy” would lead to challenges to other books, including classics such as J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.”

While teacher John Franklin suggested that the abridged version still conveyed the horrors of apartheid, others contended an edited version whitewashes history and disrespects victims of segregation.

“We really learned to understand and grasp what these people went through,” said senior Elizabeth Schmidt, who was on the committee.

With no opposition, the committee decided that the book would not be banned.

Mathabane, the author of “Kaffir Boy,” will speak about censorship during a free lecture at Cal Poly Thursday night.