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Appropriation and Stereotyping in Censorship: On Metzger and Kelleher’s “The Dearth of Native Voices in Young Adult Literature.”

Kenan Metzger and Wendy Kelleher’s “The Dearth of Native Voices in Young Adult Literature” provides a key example of the cultural consequences of literary censorship, which can otherwise appear amorphous and innocuous when viewed in relation to socially privileged youth; where most cases of literary censorship concern the acceptability of certain ideas, cases of literary censorship involving marginalized voices concern the acceptability of whole identities, not merely the right to think in a certain way, but to exist in a certain way. In a cultural environment where eurocentric standards of merit frequently determine one’s access to the means of publication, invariably, white male voices have emerged as the American cultural default, limiting opportunities for adequate representation, and encouraging appropriation, essentialization, and vilification in the form of stereotyping. As Metzger and Kelleher’s article suggests, demonization and overt racial antagonism are rarely threats posed by stereotyped images, in fact, stereotypes are often depicted in widely-appreciated cultural staples like Disney’s Pocahontas, or Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Rather, stereotyping denies the affected culture any semblance of nuance, reducing complex cultural experiences to recognizable symbols and simplified caricatures, which are then open to commoditization, and which tend to reinforce preconceptions held by the empowered, patriarchal class.

Considering the nature of appropriation and its relation to power in America, it is useful to view the censorship of literature produced by marginalized groups outside of a model of explicit challenges to texts, instead incorporating added dimensions of quantity, availability, and diversity of published materials. After all, Metzger and Kelleher’s titular “dearth” constitutes a less visible, but equally consequential, form of censorship, which effectively silences marginalized creators by permitting expression only when it is conducive to the status quo, or by removing them from the process of expression entirely. By contributing to an expectation of diversity in literature, and by insisting that marginalized groups maintain a high degree of ownership over their own stories, audiences and activists counter trends enabling censorship in the form of omission.

Importantly, as Metzger and Kelleher indicate, cultural progress does not exist in a vacuum; representation is necessary in part because it engenders material progress. Concepts related to positive representation in media, like a firm understanding of one’s place in society, a sense of belonging, and impressions of solidarity, can help to guide marginalized young people through an adverse social environment, allowing them to achieve greater success over time. Moveover, as Jane Hafen suggests, positive representation often promotes strong communal bonds, allowing for enduring racial solidarity where stereotypical depictions only serve to isolate and encourage othering. Metzger and Kelleher’s focus on young adult literature is apt in this sense, considering that secondary education greatly informs an individual’s later prospects. Young adult literature is particularly crucial for one’s development, and as Joseph Bruchac indicates, the incorporation of a narrative may enable a student to understand aspects of their own history more effectively than a set of facts detached from personal context. By encouraging success in school and beyond, positive representation provides the groundwork for effective resistance to the existing American power structure.

Progress Report I – 2007 Gwinnett County Case

My partner Olivia and I have made considerable progress on our project over the past week, having settled on a 2007 case involving a challenge to author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series in Georgia’s Gwinnett County school system. We have ultimately decided to pursue this case, rather than committing to a more general study of the mid 20th-century Georgia Literature Commission, because we expect that a narrow focus will allow for greater specificity, and that a more recent case will better complement this course’s thematic and pedagogical approach. Additionally, Olivia has connections in the Gwinnett County school system who may potentially provide interviews, or help expedite the process of obtaining sources from local administrators.

A cursory investigation into publicly available sources reveals that the appellant in this case, Laura Mallory, a concerned parent affiliated with the Gwinnett County school system, alleged that the inclusion of Rowling’s books in the Magill Elementary School media center constituted state-sponsored promotion of Wicca, a modern religion which seeks to recontextualize pagan folk traditions. Mallory proposed that by providing access to Harry Potter, Gwinnett County had thus effectively violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Her case reached a state appellate court after being initially rejected by the Gwinnett County school board, but was again rejected according to a case summary made available by the Georgia Department of Education, on the grounds that she failed to present evidence satisfying the “especially high” burden of proof required to demonstrate “gross abuse of discretion” on the part of the local board. Wording in later accounts suggests that the case may have reached an additional court soon after the appellate case, but further research is required to distinguish between individual rulings with certainty.

Additional regional and religious context associated with the Mallory case, derived in part from relevant secondary sources, may allow for more meaningful research. To that end, I have personally contacted Dr. James Welborn III, a southern historian at Georgia College & State University, to inquire about additional books and articles involving southern progressivism and power dynamics in contemporary southern communities. Moving forward, I may also seek to contact members of the Georgia College sociology department to discuss the politics of victimization, particularly majority victimization and the appropriation of victimhood. Notable questions informing proper contextualization include Mallory’s background and denomination, her intent in structuring the case around the inherently secular Establishment Clause, and the extent of her stake in school literature over the course of these cases, namely the ages and enrollment statuses of her three children. While this case appears relatively short-lived and decisive, I predict that the bulk of our analysis will come from asking questions about the implicit meaning expressed in Mallory’s challenge rather than examining the explicit challenge itself; what can we conclude about her worldview and intent, based on her diction and conduct? Ideally, Mallory will concede to an interview, provided we are able to contact her at some point, as an interview would likely prove enlightening even if it were moderated by her own terms and sense of comfort with the topic.

Moving forward, our most immediate priority will be to obtain more holistic records of cases involving Mallory. It is also imperative that we identify other notable figures involved with these trials, and seek out any relevant information associated with them.  

Digitize Everything: A Brief Critique of Samantha Thompson’s “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?”

In the American context, conventional interpretations of the word “censorship” often bring to mind images of stern and oppressive moralists challenging specific texts, policies, and actions directly. Over time, popular culture has tended to fixate on the direct, legislative dimensions of censorship, reducing the conversation surrounding the practice to a mild and generally permissible expression of anti-establishment sentiment and youthful rebellion, in which prospective censors are depicted as unduly judgmental and out-of-touch, while the impulse to censor is depicted as something alien and exceptional. While this interpretation of American censorship as direct confrontation may be reflective of an approach that is disproportionately visible, deeper questions of accessibility also remain highly relevant to the issue of censorship; in a society in which one’s relationship to power is largely defined by class and race, it is often less constructive to examine occasional restrictions on what may be read by any particular person, than it is to examine pervasive, normalized restrictions which contribute to the status quo.

In this regard, digital archiving poses a new set of challenges for archivists seeking to address mundane forms of censorship in the form of accessibility. As academic research has relied increasingly on the use of digital archives since the late 20th century, it has become increasingly necessary to examine precisely how archives have changed in the transition from traditional to digital databases. In her 2017 article, “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?” Peel Art Gallery archivist Samantha Thompson provides additional context on this point, disputing the prevailing notion that digital archives act as a kind of panacea countering issues implicit in traditional archiving, namely problems of deterioration, storage, and cost. More specifically, Thompson identifies a number of mechanical barriers to the imagined “perfect digital archive,” citing costly and time-consuming processes like cataloging metadata, depicting context accurately and appropriately, physically scanning an item with consideration for its size and specific preservation requirements, and maintaining the resultant digital materials securely. Rather than eliminating the need for professional oversight altogether, Thompson suggests that digitization has altered the relationship between archivists, materials, and the public, thereby requiring further intervention by archivists in a new professional context.

While Thompson’s point regarding the limits of digitization is convincing, it should be noted that she neglects to question a number of problematic pretenses upon which archiving in contemporary American society is based. It may be argued, for example, that a model of digital archiving contingent on profitability in the form of subscription fees may alienate members of society with a limited amount of disposable income, rendering certain sources functionally inaccessible. Furthermore, profitability may impact the nature of digitization, expediting digitization for pertinent materials which are expected to attract new subscribers. Related to the issue of a profit motive are notions of ownership and affiliation; if a particular institution (a college, museum, or gallery) affiliated with an archival collection alienates members of a particular social group, materials in that collection may be rendered similarly inaccessible to members of that group by association. Lastly, Thompson’s interpretation of copyright law as a means of maintaining accuracy and internal quality standards strikes me as an overly benevolent framing. While usage rights permit archivists to maintain accuracy in select instances, they also often serve to maintain restrictive barriers to the democratization of sources, stifling innocuous or otherwise valuable citations.