Administrator asks Muscogee County elementary schools to censor book with N-word

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 18, 2013 

After a Muscogee County School District teacher questioned the use of an offensive word in an award-winning book, the central office administrator who addressed the concern used a questionable solution.

Terry Baker, the district's elementary education director, directed his English language arts specialist to email the elementary school principals and tell them how to handle the two references to the N-word in "Steal Away Home" by Lois Ruby.

The Ledger-Enquirer didn't receive the email by deadline, but Baker said it "asks the teachers to just skip those chapters or summarize them or find the words and black them out."

Baker said he personally isn't offended by the N-word when it is used in proper literary context. "Steal Away Home" is a historical novel about what happens when a skeleton of a runaway slave is found in an attic. The story contains dialogue set in the 1850s, when the N-word was commonly used.

The book was first published in 1994, but this is the first year it is being used in Muscogee, as an option fifth-grade classes.

Although he isn't aware of anyone complaining about the book, Baker said he acted out of precaution.

"I didn't want the book to offend anyone," he said. "We have to respect others and make decisions not only for yourself but for the best interest of children."

Unfortunately, the decision didn't follow the district's policy. Baker was supposed to explain to the teacher that challenges to books used in the district should be made in writing and sent to the committee that reviews such material.

Baker, who was promoted last November from principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, said he wasn't aware of the policy.

And superintendent David Lewis, who was hired from Polk County, Fla., in July, said he wasn't aware of Baker's decision before the email was sent.

"That's one of the things I'm trying to tighten up," Lewis said. "… My concern is I want to always follow policy and procedure. I realize Mr. Baker is relatively new in his position, so we will ensure that all of our principals and instructional personnel are aware of this issue."

The Georgia Department of Education doesn't require any specific books to be read, said Dorie Nolt, the department's assistant communications director. The state sets educational standards and suggests books and resources to teach those standards, she said.

Ronie Collins, the Muscogee district's chief academic officer, said the local system allows teachers to decide which books to use, so it's unclear how many classes have read or are reading "Steal Away Home."

Nolt said she hasn't heard of any complaints about "Steal Away Home" elsewhere.

Neither has the author. Reached by phone at her home in New Mexico, the 71-year-old Ruby said this is the first time in her 40-year, 16-book writing career that someone suggested censoring her work. In fact, she said, she will fly Sunday to Georgia to speak about the book in 18 school districts.

Muscogee isn't on her itinerary.

"I certainly hope some time in the future maybe I can visit your area," she said, "so I can put people's minds to rest that I'm a nice lady and didn't mean any harm to anybody."

After she learned that Muscogee hasn't banned her book and the suggested censorship violated the district's policy, Ruby said, "I'm somewhat relieved that it's not quite as widespread as I thought in terms of the whole district, but it still makes me very sad. I have to write what I need to write and find the language that fits the time and place, and that's what I will continue to do."


This isn't the first time the issue of censorship stirred up controversy in the Muscogee County School District. Other cases include:

• In 2009, the district's eight-member media committee voted unanimously to keep the young-adult novel "My Brother Sam is Dead" in all elementary school libraries, despite a parent's concerns about profanity in the book.

• In 1999, Muscogee County teacher aides were directed to open 2,334 copies of a history textbook and paint over George Washington's timepiece in the reproduction of Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware" because it looked like the father of our country had his testicles hanging out of his trousers.

• In 1996, "If Beale Street Could Talk" by James Baldwin was pulled from library shelves at three Muscogee high schools -- Carver, Columbus and Hardaway -- after a radio talk show host complained about the book to a school board member and then to a school administrator, who found the book offensive and warned principals about it. The book contains profanity, blasphemy and graphic sex scenes.

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