When Mark Mathabane was growing up in South Africa, the apartheid government forbade the reading of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Now, 40 years later, San Luis Obispo High School is considering whether or not to ban or censor “Kaffir Boy,” Mathabane’s autobiographical account of growing up in a South African ghetto.
“Kaffir Boy” is taught as part of the Honors Modern World History course at San Luis Obispo High School. But one person’s literature is at times another’s vulgarity, and last spring the school received an anonymous complaint — the first in the 10 years the book has been taught. While some have questioned the school’s decision to review the complaint, this may be a teachable moment for us all.
Mathabane himself will speak in San Luis Obispo next week, and students have become immersed in the debate over majority rule and minority rights.
Education is at its best when the lessons jump from the pages into our lives. But given history’s questionable experiments in book banning, we should be extremely cautious about any attempts to ban or censor Mathabane’s original writing.
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I am intrigued by this “book banning debate” for two very personal reasons. I am a high school teacher who has taught the same world history curriculum. I am also a parent of two students who have taken the class that uses “Kaffir Boy.”
The 10th-grade history curriculum paints a broad canvas, covering political philosophy of Ancient Greece, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Imperialism, both world wars, the Cold War, and national struggles for independence. The challenge is to move beyond the facts — without ignoring them — and capture the ethos of critical milestones in the history of Western Civilization. It is rare to find a book that bottles the essence of a moment in that history. One thinks of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Erich Maria Remarque’s portrayal of the First World War, and Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust survival memoir, “Night.” Mathabane’s “Kaffir Boy” is such a book.
The anonymous complaint focused on a particularly disturbing passage in the book, which involves child prostitution for food amidst the grinding poverty, violence and hopelessness of life under the brutal apartheid regime. It is also a transformative moment in Mathabane’s life and a critical turning point in the book.
San Luis Obispo High provides a solid education and has many inspiring teachers. The history class now in the spotlight has one of those outstanding educators. I am confident that “Kaffir Boy” was selected with deliberation and sensitivity. As both teacher and parent, I celebrate times when students can combine meaningful readings with historical perspectives in a supportive educational environment.
Freedom from censorship flows from our most fundamental rights, enshrined in the First Amendment and supported in numerous Supreme Court rulings. The court, for example, has ruled that school officials can’t take books from high school library shelves just because they don’t like the ideas expressed in the books (Board of Education v. Pico, 1982).
At the same time, any parent can sympathize with the desire to uphold moral standards and protect our children from unnecessary vulgarity in required school readings. And while it’s reasonable that an abridged version of the passage be made available in rare cases where someone objects, I hope that the original version of “Kaffir Boy” continues to be the text of choice for the course. After all, Michelangelo’s “David” would not be the same masterpiece if David wore a fig leaf. Picasso’s “Guernica” would not be the iconic painting it is if the woman were holding a broken vase instead of a dead baby. Moreover, Mathabane has asked that schools not censor his work.
“Should students be deprived of what I believe is a key scene in order to make a few parents comfortable?” he has written. “I don’t think so. Books aren’t written with the comfort of readers in mind. I know I didn’t write ‘Kaffir Boy’ that way. I wrote it to reflect reality, to show the world the inhumanity of the apartheid system.”
High school students need to understand these powerful moments in history. Caring, intelligent instruction of great works of art needs to be upheld, not picked apart by committee.
Geoffrey Land teaches at Paso Robles High School and lives in San Luis Obispo.
The San Luis Obispo High School review committee will meet to discuss “Kaffir Boy” at 3:30 p.m. Monday in Room 401. The meeting is open to the public. Author Mark Mathabane will speak about his life, his writing and efforts to censor “Kaffir Boy” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Cal Poly’s Spanos Theatre.