You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

“Parthenon” made of banned books built at site of Nazi book burning:


The Parthenon was created by Argentinian artist Marta Minujin, who in 2011 built the “Tower of Babel” in Buenos Aires, a monument made of books in all languages, including many banned by Argentina’s government.

YCRT! News

In 2012 YCRT! featured a story about the banning of books by the Tucson Unified School District, an infamous incident that exposed Arizona to national and international ridicule. Would you believe those books are still banned? The Arizona Supreme Court is hearing the case now. Meanwhile, here’s a look at ten outlawed books Tucson high school students aren’t allowed to read or study in school.

Some of those banned books, racist Arizona officials claimed, might incite students to overthrow the government. Those same fears seem to be behind protests over Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar, which, according to Fox News, “appears to depict President Trump being brutally stabbed to death by women and minorities.”

In related circle-the-wagons-around-the-unelected-president news, a New Jersey high school teacher has been suspended for photoshopping out Trump T-shirt logos in yearbook photos. Warning: obnoxiously loud auto-play video at the link.

University of Wisconsin student sues her professor for a higher grade, claiming the poetry course she failed focused on “lesbians, illicit sexual relationships, incest and frequent swearing” while ignoring “the importance and the validity of the mainstream student population.”

When I hear people accusing writers of cultural appropriation, I hear an insidious argument for racial and cultural segregation. As this New York Times op/ed author says, “Campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal the changing meaning of what it is to challenge racism. Once, it was a demand for equal treatment for all. Now it calls for cultures to be walled off and boundaries to be policed.”

Always fun: ‘Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!’: when movie censorship goes wrong.

Misinformed Americans think it’s illegal to sit out the Pledge of Allegiance or refuse to stand during the singing of the national anthem. After NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police shootings of African-Americans, incidents of forced patriotism are on the rise. The latest case involves a first-grader in Terre Haute, Indiana.

I’m going to guess the Alabama high school teacher who sent out this summer reading list would take a dim view of students refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance:

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 8.38.20 AM

The National Coalition Against Censorship weighs in against a California school district’s plan to remove Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from its ninth-grade curriculum.

Thanks to censorship imposed by the Comics Code Authority in 1954, comic books today are one of the last holdouts of white patriarchy. It wasn’t always that way.

The TSA is testing new requirements that passengers remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airline security. No, this isn’t alarming at all. Move on, people, nothing to see here.

When I watched the Oscar-nominated movie “Hidden Figures,” I was moved by the scene in which a black mother and her children were escorted out of a public library. Largely forgotten now, a sit-in protest at the segregated Jackson, Mississippi public library was an important part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Teen Vogue is woke! Their latest: New Florida Law Lets ANYONE Challenge What Schools Teach (even if they don’t know anyone attending).

YCRT! Banned Book Review

Since the lead item in this YCRT! column is the ongoing story of banned books in Tucson high schools, I’m reprinting an earlier review of one of those outlawed books, originally published here in May 2013.

bless me ultimaBless Me, Ultima
by Rudolfo Anyana

This is a hard review to write. I read “Bless Me, Ultima” because it is frequently challenged, often banned, sometimes even burned. I read it because it has been banished from Tucson classrooms and school libraries. I read it because I live in a majority Mexican-American community in a part of Arizona that until relatively recently was still part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. And I read it because many readers have praised it.

Anaya wrote his novel in 1972. Copies were confiscated and burned at a New Mexico school less than a year later. Burning, it turned out, was not to be a one-time aberration: “Bless Me, Ultima” has fed the flames again and again: the most recent incident happened in Norwood, Colorado, in 2005.

My interest in what’s sometimes called Chicano pride literature began in January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District administrators cancelled Mexican-American Studies classes in mid-session, pulling novels and textbooks from students’ and teachers’ hands and packing them in boxes labeled “banned books,” a story that resulted in international outrage and made Arizona a laughingstock. “Bless Me, Ultima” was one of TUSD’s targets.

Why do non-hispanics hate this novel? The most-often cited reason is that it contains profanity, violence, and sexuality. It is true that the novel contains two instances of the word “fuck.” More if you translate the word “chingada,” which appears so many times that if you were to eliminate all the other words, you’d still have 20 pages of chingada. Also, the kids in the story call each other “cabrón” a lot. And there is violence. If there’s any sex, though, I must have missed it.

Other challenges spell out what I consider to be more likely objections: the story is irreverent toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, full of pagan mysticism, and frankly pro-magic (in that Ultima is a practicing medicine woman who uses her arts to stymie and even kill witches). Which is all true, but neither here nor there in a society that respects the separation of church and state (don’t we all wish).

Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne dared speak what I believe to be the real reasons behind racist white antipathy toward “Bless Me, Ultima”: in interviews leading up to the TUSD book bannings he characterized Mexican-American studies and the books used in those classes as “civilizational war” and stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization. Oh, yes, he really did say that.

So there you have the reasons Anaya’s novel generates so much hate. Now I come to the hard part, explaining why I didn’t get much out of reading it. I’ll refer back to the 20 pages of “chingadas” and “cabróns,” and a host of other Spanish and Indian words sprinkled throughout the narrative: yes, it’s worth it to note that Mexican-Americans living near the US/Mexico border use many Spanish and Indian words in everyday speech, but after a while I began to feel somewhat put upon by all this multiculturalism.

Antonio keeps telling us Ultima is not a witch, but she has an owl as a familiar and she casts counter-spells against three known brujas (witches), killing two of them before she herself is killed … not directly, but by the father of the witches, who kills the owl and thus Ultima. So she’s a witch. C’mon.

Apart from Antonio and Ultima, the other characters are paper cutouts, acting and speaking in predictable ways. It was interesting to see Antonio begin to question the teachings of the church and to embrace the paganism of Ultima and the mysterious golden carp, but that was all the excitement the novel offered, and Antonio’s doubts grew tiresome after much repetition.

It’s an okay story. I question how relevant it is to today’s readers, but as a cornerstone of Mexican-American literature it is undoubtedly important. I’m glad I read it, but having read it, I remain far more interested in the reasons racist whites hate it than I am in the novel itself.

© 2017, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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