North Carolina superintendent abruptly removes MLK-themed novel from 10th grade class
An acclaimed MLK-themed novel was removed from a 10th-grade English class in North Carolina. Haywood County Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte told Popular Information that he pulled the book, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, in a matter of hours after receiving one parent complaint. Nolte said he did not read the book — or even obtain a copy — prior to making the decision.
The 10th-grade parent, Tim Reeves, addressed the Haywood County School Board on January 10. Reeves said that his son received Dear Martin in 10th-grade English class on January 6. Reeves learned from his son that the book contained "explicit language" including the "f-word," the "s-word," and "GD." Reeves said that he was "appalled." He said the "language" and "sexual innuendos" in the book are "concerning to me as a parent."
Reeves acknowledged that his son hears "lots of language every day" but objected to its inclusion in a "textbook." Reeves suggested that providing Dear Martin to 10th graders violated the "age of consent" because "they are still adolescents."
Dear Martin "tells the story of an Ivy League-bound African American student named Justyce who becomes a victim of racial profiling." The book covers Justyce's "experiences at his mostly White prep school and the fallout from his brief detainment." In the book, Justyce's diary includes a letter to King in which Justyce explains how he sought to emulate the civil rights icon.
Stone's book was a finalist for the American Library Association's William C. Morris Award, a New York Times #1 bestseller, and was named one of TIME Magazine's top 100 young adult books of all time. Common Sense Media, a non-profit that evaluates books and other media for children, found the book was appropriate for 14-year-olds, who are typically in 9th grade. It also awarded the book 5 out of 5 stars for "overall quality."
When Reeves arrived at the School Board at the meeting, however, Nolte told him that he had removed Dear Martin from 10th grade English class.
In an interview, Nolte told Popular Information that he first heard from Reeves about his concerns "earlier that day." According to Nolte, Reeves had previously spoken to the high school principal who offered to provide an alternative text for Reeves' son. But Reeves was not satisfied and wanted the school to remove the text from the class.
Nolte said that, before making the decision to remove the book, he did not have an opportunity to "read all of it." Instead, Nolte "talked to some people who had read different sections of it" and "looked at some of the parts of it that were published online." Nolte also said he "didn't talk to the teacher at all about why she picked that text."
Nolte then concluded that "the amount of profanity and other descriptions or images in it" made Dear Martin inappropriate for a 10th-grade English class. There is no blanket prohibition on novels with profanity but Nolte said he was concerned with the frequency. "I made the best judgment I could make I feel pretty comfortable with it," Nolte concluded.
Nolte's approach appears inconsistent with the official policies of Haywood County Public Schools. Under the policy, a parent "may submit an objection in writing to the principal regarding the use of particular instructional materials." (Reeves did email the principal about his objection.) Then the principal "may establish a committee to review the objection" or make the decision themselves. Only if the principal or committee disagrees with the parent may "the decision of the committee or principal be appealed to the superintendent." In this case, Nolte says that he made the decision himself on the same day the complaint was filed. There is no indication that the principal rejected the objection or was even given the opportunity to decide.
Nolte's decision is also part of a larger trend of removing books that deal with marginalized communities based on alleged concerns about profanity.
The superintendent's history of racial controversy
In July 2020, Nolte posted this image on Facebook.
At the time Nolte said "he was responding to a June 14 BET.com article that discussed how an ABC executive was placed on administrative leave after saying during contract negotiations with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts that 'it wasn’t as if ABC was asking Roberts to pick cotton.'" The most straightforward interpretation of the image in that context was the comment about Roberts wasn't racist because children of all races picked cotton. "Cotton, if you know anything about it, it’s not about race," Nolte said in his defense. This also seemed to be the view Nolte expressed in a series of now-deleted comments on Facebook:
But, subjected to increasing criticism, Nolte insisted that he "was supporting Robin Roberts." He later removed the image. "I want to sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my repost of poor white children picking cotton that said picking cotton was not about race," Nolte wrote.
Responding to allegations that his post was racist, Nolte added that "my first college roommate was a dear high school friend who was black." The local chapter of the NAACP was not impressed.
Following the Facebook post, Nolte was "temporarily relieved of day-to-day duties." At the time, a group of "parents, alumni, current students" were petitioning Haywood County schools to reform its curriculum to include more diverse perspectives. Their requests included the inclusion of "novels told from the perspective of or centering around BIPOC main characters and plotlines."
Nolte was reinstated a week later. Following his reinstatement, Nolte pledged to "work to ensure equity in the school system."
Dear Martin targeted in other schools
In Kentucky, the superintendent for the Monett School District, Mark Drake, pulled Dear Martin from the classroom because teachers "didn’t go through the proper protocol to get it approved." Drake said that "the book wasn’t pulled from the curriculum because of the topic."
Some parents in the school are concerned the book will no longer be in the classroom. One parent, Suzy Gonzalez, said "her son felt a personal connection to this book and was upset when the district pulled it." Gonzalez told television affiliate KY3. "His peers in his class started telling him that racism didn’t exist," Gonzalez said. "[H]e felt like he was being bullied by his peers."
The book was replaced by To Kill A Mockingbird. Stone told KY3 that Harper Lee's novel is one of her favorites, but it was published in the 1960s and is not the same as Dear Martin:
The way that race relations functioned then is a little different from now. Things that that book is addressing back then differ from what Dear Martin is addressing now. Dear Martin was inspired by a number of true events. The death of Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida. The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Watching these Black boys lose their lives for no reason at all, it really sparked something for me as a mother of Black boys.
In Minnesota, the Sartell-St. Stephen School District included Dear Martin in its 9th-grade English curriculum. One parent, Steve Kron, said he found the plot, which included "six different incidences of police violence against these kids," to be "very one-sided." He also cited profanity and sexual content.
But the superintendent in the Sartell-St. Stephen School District, Dr. Jeff Ridlehoover, took a different approach and defended the inclusion of Dear Martin. "It is important for students to…really have an introspective look at topics that are deemed controversial," Ridlehoover said. "It is not our job to tell kids how or what to think but it’s our job to allow them to think and to discuss and to draw their own conclusions and opinions."
In protest, five out of the district's 380 9th-graders were pulled from the class by their parents.
The double standard
Some parents and administrators cite profanity, violence, and sexual content to justify the exclusion of Dear Martin and other texts. But many classic works of literature that are a staple of high school curriculums, including Hamlet and The Odyssey, include the same kind of content. Yet, today, they are seldom targeted by parents or schools.
Rather, profanity and other concerns are frequently used to exclude books that focus on the plight of marginalized communities. In 2019, Dear Martin was banned from a Georgia school district due to profanity while several other novels with profane language were approved.
This year, a Tennessee county school board removed Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from an 8th-grade curriculum, citing profanity. In that case, however, the censorship effort appeared to backfire. The decision to pull Maus garnered national media coverage and rocketed the book, first published in 1980, to the top of the bestseller lists.
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