Why Books Banned in Other School Boards Are Part of the Stuyvesant Curriculum
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Stuyvesant is part of a liberal school district that allows English teachers to assign a wide variety of books in their classes with few restrictions. However, on a nationwide scale, more conservative school districts have seen a noticeable trend toward book bans. This is partially due to a network of local political groups targeting books containing LGBTQ+ and Black characters. The uptick in banning novels stands in stark contrast with the relative curricular freedom provided by Stuyvesant. In celebration of this freedom, here are four books taught at Stuyvesant that students wouldn't be able to find in many other school libraries.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was written to battle pro-slavery sentiments by displaying the inherent dehumanization present in the American enslavement system. It was banned practically everywhere in the South due to its anti-slavery themes. In more recent years, bans of this novel have ramped up again, with school district officials citing its use of racial slurs as inappropriate. Stuyvesant teachers consider this novel vital because it demonstrates a variety of argumentation techniques and embodies anti-slavery literary traditions. “The book is an argument against slavery, so we tend to teach it on an argumentative level,” English teacher Emilio Nieves, who will be teaching AP African American Studies in the fall, explained.
Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright:
Native Son is a novel by Richard Wright that follows Bigger Thomas, a young man living in utter poverty on Chicago’s South Side. The novel contains scenes depicting murder via suffocation, rape, and the incineration of a corpse. As a result, many school districts have historically cited intense violence, sex, and profanity as reasons for banning the novel. Currently, four states, including California and Missouri, have school districts where this book is banned from school libraries. Many English teachers at Stuyvesant, however, argue that this book is valuable in teaching complex themes surrounding poverty, love, and the nature of evil. At the time, it also boldly exposed the nation to the fundamental inequality and poverty still present after the Civil War. “Richard Wright himself [was a] pioneer of American Black intellectual thought, [and] is, I think, one of the bravest writers I have ever encountered—brave because he’s not here to give White America or Black America a hero narrative,” English teacher Alice Yang said.
She expressed appreciation for the novel’s illustration of moral relativism, as the standards of good and evil aren’t always black and white. “Stories like Native Son really [draw] me in because it’s very ambiguous where the goodness of the main character lies and where some of his moral flaws lie, and everything’s amped up because he’s a Black man in the climate of 1930s Chicago,” Yang said.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D Salinger:
The Catcher in the Rye is about a 16-year-old named Holden Caulfield who has been expelled from prep school and becomes disillusioned with the adult world. The book has been restricted over 25 times in schools across the nation, initially due to the Cold War censorship of novels criticizing American life. “There was a kind of anti-capitalism theme running through that novel, and it was the time of the Cold War and rejection of communism,” Nieves explained. It was also banned due to homophobia: “[It depicted] homosexuality [...] which society probably wasn’t ready to be so open about in the 1950s,” Nieves added.
Teachers teach this novel for several reasons, including the analysis of Salinger's literary creativity. “You sometimes get into social-emotional things, like relationships and love, and you know, materialism—you kind of get into those topics, but as an English teacher, I tend to try to focus more on the literary value, the way the story is told, the language,” Nieves expressed.
We the Animals (2011) by Justin Torres:
We the Animals is a novel by Justin Torres that follows an unnamed narrator and his brothers Manuel and Joel as they navigate growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. The narrator struggles to come to terms with his sexuality as a gay man in an intensely Catholic area, and in the process explores mature topics such as domestic abuse. Yang acknowledged that the book may seem disturbing to readers at first: “A lot of people may feel uncomfortable reading it or maybe even teaching it; it’s always an emotional drain for me to teach it.” But she explained that analyzing how the novel unpacks these mature topics helps one grow as a reader, writer, and person, especially when the analysis is done in an English classroom, where students are able to receive guidance. “However, when we discuss it as a class in space that knows the language of discussion and analysis, a lot can come out of it [in the form of] a personal type of revelation,” Yang remarked.
These novels cover incredibly challenging topics. However, they are important novels for their literary value, influence on American society, and complex themes that cultivate discussion. So, while censorship in elementary or middle schools may be necessary at times, school districts should be able to trust high school students to be capable of understanding mature topics and discussing them with respect. Nieves put it best when he said, “I’m not for banning or censorship, but what I am for is common sense [...] you know some things are not age-appropriate, so I think the conversation should not be banning but what’s appropriate for certain ages.”