Robin Bates grew up in Sewanee, Tennessee and attended Carleton College. After two years as a journalist, he attended Emory University, writing his dissertation on the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett. He taught for a year at Morehouse College and came to St. Mary’s College in 1981. He has published numerous academic articles on film, won two Fulbright awards to Slovenia, and self-published a book, How Beowulf Can Save America. He maintains a daily blog called Better Living through Beowulf.
Professor Bates was David Flood’s Professor prior to David assigning Song of Solomon.
In the article below, Professor Bates expresses his concern with the removal of Song of Solomon. He mentions in his interview that his opinions on the matter have changed and his more conservative suggestions no longer apply the same way.
Bates, Robin. “Teachers Should Teach the Great Works and Teach the Controversies Along With Them” The Enterprise, December 24, 1997.
Drexel: All right. So, uh, I’m Christopher Drexel were interviewing professor Robin Bates. Um, I just want to start off to give people like a little bit of context with your position. So if you could just tell us a little bit about yourself.
Robin Bates: OK. I’ve been teaching at St Mary’s College for 37 years. I, I’m in the English department. My specialty is the novel. And so, um, with regard to this particular issue, I’ve taught a number of Toni Morrison’s novels, but probably more than any other one I’ve taught Song of Solomon. I taught it in a, I’ve taught it in that minority literature course. I’ve taught it in nature literature class, so I’ve taught it in multiple contexts.
Drexel: And, um, can you tell me a little bit about the blog you run? That’s how we actually initially found you.
Robin Bates: It’s called Better living through Beowulf; how great literature can change your life. And so, um, I believe that literature can intersect with lives in very powerful ways. And so for six days a week I give myself Saturday off a write s about some way which literature impacts lives. Sometimes it’s about, um, how, how a piece of literature has impacted the personal life. Sometimes the stories I see in the news sometimes as the ways that one can use literature to negotiate the issues that people encounter.
Drexel: Perfect. And uh, what are your personal use on censorship in literature and media in general?
Robin Bates: Um, instinctively I’m against it. Um, there are instances where I think it’s necessary and especially if you’re talking about different ages of the, you know, there needs to be some guidance from, from parents or from Guardian figures to a certain extent. But, um, sometimes I think we, um, I tend to err more on the liberal side than on the conservative side of that, by which I mean that um, I know younger, younger people are often being able to handle it much better than the Canada as far as adults. I believe that adults are able to make up their own minds.
Drexel: OK. How do you feel about the book itself? Before we jump into the actual censorship of it.
Robin Bates: Song of Solomon? I think its a spectacular book. I think first of all, I think Toni Morrison is one of our great authors. I think she’s just, um, she’s uh, well before Bob Dylan she was the last American to win a Nobel prize. She thoroughly deserved it. It’s just, it’s a dazzling book about a young man who goes on a, basically a, a young African American man who has lost, doesn’t know really who he is or what he wants to do in life. Feels like there should be some kind of meaning. And then he almost accidentally launches upon a meaning quests and a roots quest. And in the process of that he discovers about his background and he finds meaning to his life. And by the end of the book, well, the end of the book is open, open ended in ways that perhaps I shouldn’t reveal the ending. But at any rate it looks like he really has discovered who he is and, and come down with a very solid value system. And the ending is, the last paragraph is dazzling this great Gatsby, last paragraph, dazzling. That’s how good it is.
Drexel: So moving into the censorship of the actual book um, so in 1998, um, we notice like your name popped up in the enterprise, I saw the piece he wrote to the editor a, what was it like being involved in that back and forth that was going on with the enterprise for five or six months.
Robin Bates: That’s, that’s interesting. Um, I think it started off, first of all, um, I had heard about the incident as a student of mine. A former student of mine was actually the student who had assigned Song of Solomon in his class and he had, um, so maybe tell you a little bit about that story. First of all, David Flood teaching at Leonardtown school and he’d come up with a very imaginative way of looking at, um, um, novels and he paired Song of Solomon and Huckleberry Finn. Both works are controversial in their own right. And, but when one looks at race issues, but from a white perspective, although Mark Twain is very sympathetic to Jim’s perspective and um, the other looked at it from an African American perspective, Toni Morrison, so, and they’re both, they’re both coming of age stories, um, both or coming to consciousness stories there, but as I say, going through what, you know, when it’s told through the vantage point of a young white boy and the other one told us through the point, uh, mostly through the vantage point of a young African American man. So it was what you exactly what you want to do to have high school students engaged with issues, thinking things, thinking things through. So, but I had lost a little touch with, uh, with David so I hadn’t realized what he was doing until I heard, I guess the, the, um, from the page that the enterprise that the book was getting banned. Um, I didn’t do anything at first. And then I saw somebody wrote a letter basically attacking Toni Morrison, saying that she was overrated. And that’s, that got me involved. So he was somebody who was claimed to be a professor up at some, some other college first, I think that had been done actually, I can’t remember exactly where he was from, but at any rate. So I felt like we needed, we needed another voice coming to Toni Morrison’s defense. So I did. And I talked about just what, um, how much, how valuable the book is and what a great thing that the student was doing. Well, one thing I said that I really believed is that for, um, especially the young African men who are wrestling with all kinds of all kinds of issues, this, it’s almost like there’s not a novel you would want them to read more than this one because it begins with a young man who was lost and aimless and then he finds a purpose in life. And once he finds that purpose, he starts respecting other people more. He starts believing in themselves more. It’s, it’s everything you want high school students to grapple with. So it’s an exemplary, um, it’s an exemplary novel. I think it’s kind of interesting. I mean, huckleberry Finn is being attacked and all kinds of school systems sometimes for the use of the word sometimes because readers believe that it doesn’t, it infantilizes Jim. Um, I’ve actually come to its defense in both those cases. I think it’s, I think it’s more subtle than that, but I thought it’s so interesting. Then they work by the African American author as the work’s getting attacked, worked by the white author, just gets off, gets off Scot free, which sends a terrible message to African American students. And, um, the African American community, here’s the, you know, the latest person at that time to win the Nobel Prize of African American woman. She should be kind of held up as a gym, not only for the African American community, but for America. She’s somebody we should all be proud of and to have her band from a school system. I was just thought it was
Drexel: The talks on the enterprise kind of went back and forth for a long time did you try to keep up with it? Did you follow what everyone was saying?
Robin Bates: To a certain extent Um, the, the main, uh, what I did after I wrote my letter, so I wrote a long letter in the editor at the time, um, he had to stay neutral of course because he was the editor. Um, but he, he let me know that he really liked my letter a lot, but then I, um, I set up a meeting I would to set up the meeting with a meeting with the superintendent. They just basically argue with or to see if she would change her, change her ruling on that because that ruling is, that’s that basically teachers are not… I don’t know if they’re willing still stands, but they’re willing at the time was that teachers are not allowed to teach Song of Solomon in St Mary’s county schools. Um, it’s on the reading list. So, but anyway, that’s the dictum came down. Um, the way that I probably just the backup, just a second, just to make clear how it happened. Apparently some student who objected to some of the strong language and two pages somewhere close to the middle and it’s ….It’s to, it’s uh, um, the character has gone to the rural south. He’s from um, metropolitan urban area in, in Michigan. He’s going south and he’s basically, he’s being tested. He walks into a bar, they see, they see how kind of relatively wealthy is compared to them and they started testing him. This, this, this, this trash talking that goes back and forth, and there’s some, um, some strong language use now. It’s the kind of language that’s a by your sophomore and junior year you hear regularly on the playgrounds, the basketball courts all over America. But OK, it was in a book that was being assigned in the school. So one student was offended by the language, complained to his mother, his mother photocopy the pages, took it to, um, the superintendent schools name was Pat Richardson, I think that was her name. Um, she, um, she took those, the photocopies. She didn’t read the whole book or even look at the old books. He just took the photocopy, took it to the head of the, um, county commissioners showed it to him. He was shocked. Not Often. That often happens when you take something out of context as opposed to seeing it in the, in the full context and so on. The basis is almost like she was using him, at least as I understood it, to get some her backup for the decision, but you just made then made was too, um, forbid the book to be taught. And so that’s, you know, that’s how the banding happened. So when I went in, so I wanted to talk to her. She wouldn’t see me, but she did refer me to, to have her subordinates. So I talked to them and um, voiced my displeasure, talked about how at a gym, but how important Toni Morrison is to American letters. I’m wondering if you’re going to ban Song of Solomon are you going to also ban Beloved, which is also on the list. In some ways it’s an even rougher or a rougher ride then Song of Solomon. The really couldn’t answer that question very much. But um, so I, I put in my protest but it didn’t do any good. I understand from my. I had a talk with my students or former students not long after that. And he was, he was really shaken up and pretty hurt by what had gone on and he did not expect that something like that to happen. He thought he come up with a good lesson plan and he had. So it should never, you should never have come to that. Oh, I should do one of those things. This is often how it happens after, after the incident, um, there used to be a bookstore up in California, Maryland, bay books it was called. They couldn’t keep the book in stock after that. Students had to go out and buy and read the book after that.
Drexel: One of the articles that I came across in the enterprise was, um, someone who used to live in this area a woman from Centerville Virginia who donated money to the libraries, so they could buy more of the books.
Robin Bates: I hadn’t heard her response. How wonderful. I hadn’t heard that story.
Drexel: Um, let’s see. How have your thoughts on this change since you initially wrote about it? If they have.
Robin Bates: We have. So here, here’s, here’s the thought. So what I suggested, I kind of, I, my suggestion was a very um, um, conservative suggested. They said I used to have students should be able to, OK, if a student really had an objection, they should be able to opt out and read some other book. I’m not so sure that’s, I agree with that anymore. Um, um, first of all, if you have students opting out of books, you’re going non-stop, you know, a set of protests, you know, potentially going on, you know, it’s, we have to believe, we have to believe that teachers have the best interests of our students in mind. Our students or teachers are experts. They understand our students. They understand what our students need. We have to learn how to trust our teachers. Um, and so that’s. So that’s one way I don’t entirely agree with my letter originally I was trying to be I guess compromising in a sense, but in my compromising I really didn’t stand up for teachers as strongly as I would’ve liked. So thinking back about what I said at the time, I would write a different letter now. I’d make a different suggestion that I’d otherwise I’d write the same letter, which was my deep admiration for, for Toni Morrison.
Drexel: And the last question I had was, have you had any other experiences with censorship before the Song of Solomon case and any since then?
Robin Bates: Um, I mean certainly the things that I see the news, um, so not personally, but here’s, here’s what I can speak up. So I teach a course. I’m very interested in reader response different. There are different approaches to literature. Um, some people focus more on the text, some people focus more on the, the, um, the author. A lot of people focus on the historical context and I look at those things as well, but I’m particularly interested in the reader and what happens when readers encounter a work of literature you can tell from my blog, but I said how literature can change your life. I’m fascinated by that. So I teach a course called theories of the reader. And in that course I asked my students to take a, um, let’s see. Take a work that has created a stir or work that has caused a commotion work. A work that was an event and then figure out do historical research and figure out why that were caused that event. And it can be anything but the students I’ve discovered are very interested in issues of censorship. So invariably I get a number of students will write about books that had been censored often by school boards and what my requirement is that the assignment is the students have to look at that work from every, um, every participant’s point of view. So they’re not allowed to say, these parents are stupid for wanting to ban this book. They have to say, why would parents respond the way they are doing? Why would teachers respond the way they’re doing? Why would students respond to the way they’re doing? Why would church groups responding to what they’re doing? So they’re supposed to be as. So it was virtually doing kind of a sociological study of why all the different parties respond to the work as they do. Because once they do that, then you realize what kind of interesting conversations the work has set into motion. And then once you see those conversations, you realize just how deep that we’re coming off operate in different levels. So my students will often choose to write about, um, say censorship attacks on Catcher in the Rye or Perks of Being a Wallflower or to see what are some of the other ones they’ve, uh, they’ve, they’ve written about a man of Sorrows of Young Werther that’s an eighteenth century work by Goethe. So which, which young people loved and old people hate it and you know, in, in, you know, attack. So I’m, so this is kind of step back just for a second, to put it in an even broader context. These debates about works and it works can do readers harm. They go back to Plato. Plato actually argued that, uh, the Iliad or more actually more The Odyssey could do bad things to young men. It could turn them into cowards because its depiction of the underworld is so frightening that Plato was worried that if they read these frightening pictures of the underworld, there’ll be so afraid of death that they’d be turned cowardly on the battlefield and runaway. Or there’s these, these banqueting images in The Odyssey in which, you know, sumptuous feast, Odysseus is always eating. Plato was worried about if young men read these scenes, they would become, they would lose their fighting spirit and their austere, austere sense of discipline and give them over, give themselves over to sensual pleasures. So basically Plato speaking as a 2,500 years ago was worried about the dangerous effects the literature could have. And so sometimes I find this interesting, sometimes conservatives have more respect for what, for the power the literature has than Liberals do. Liberals say, well, let people read it. You know, it doesn’t make that much of a difference at any rate. Whereas Conservatives will sometimes say this literature, it could ruin your life. So in other words, literacy, sometimes conservatives see literature having more power than liberals. Liberals do. And so I, I’ve Kinda with, I’m Kinda with the Conservatives there. Yes, literature has power. It works on us in profound ways, ways that we can begin to it. And if we just pretend that it’s no big deal, then we sell literature short. Um, I’ll say this is kind of an indirect experience when I’m teaching, I’m all, the last time I taught this course, at one point, one of my students did a study of Harry Potter, you know, at certain certain, um, Christian communities. Harry Potter is, you know, um, parents won’t let their kids read Harry Potter. They’re afraid that it’ll. Well, you can go, I can go into the reasons if you’re interested. But, um, but I know that I asked her, I asked the classes, did anybody here, did your parents forbid you to read Harry Potter? And a third of the class raised their hands, it surprised me. I didn’t think it would be that high, but you know, so, um, so parents had heard that this was an ungodly book and it might lead their kids into witchcraft or something like that. And so they didn’t allow their kids to read it. So yeah. So, um, um, same way with the golden compass have come across was with kids whose parents didn’t allow them to read the Golden Compass. So when I hear that as a, as a reader response theorist and as a person is interested in the sociological and psychological impact of literature on readers, I’m instantly interested. I want to understand what’s going on in that interaction between, between reader and text
Drexel: And, um, I didn’t actually have this question written down, but, um, I’ve been grappling with trying to find the historical context of centered around this book as well. And um, a lot of times they were citing that the book was filth or trash or like it promoted that because there was some sexual instances in the book that at the time it had been considered taboo and that’s mostly what the complaints were against, aside from the strong language. Um, but I was wondering if you know of any other underlying historical context for the time period that may have factored into their complaints as well.
Robin Bates: Um, that’s a really good question because sometimes the reasons that people give for their complaints aren’t the real reasons. And I’m fascinated by, um, I’m, I’m fascinated by that too. Um, strong depiction of young African American men sometimes, you know, that can be, um, um, that can be off putting. Um, that’s, that’s, that’s kind of what comes up to me. I mean, there’s a character in there and I mean, he’s a, he’s not a good character. He’s, you know, it’s a, his name, his guitar and he, um, he, he said, uh, he had seen his father died in the a mill accident. The company that was responsible for his death was totally irresponsible, blah, blah out at all. And so he has become a real militant. In fact, he says for every, every, um, black man who was killed, he was part of, a militant organization that’s going to kill one white person to keep some kind of balance going on. OK. So he’s a member of a black terrorist organization. And Toni Morrison’s point about that is, and she doesn’t, she doesn’t approve of that at all. The major character whose name is Milkman, um, you know, ends up splitting with his friend, and then this violence which has been directed against whites, gets directly, gets blacks sometimes, sometimes happens. So there’s some very, there’s some pretty potent, um, images of violence in there. My point when I wrote to the enterprise, however, is if you banned, if you banned literature for having taboo subjects. If you banned literature for having strong scenes, then suddenly you’re going to start banning, you’re going to ban Oedipus Rex, are you going to ban Paradise Lost for that matter you’re going to ban the Bible right? There are instances of incest, instance of a kind of sodomy there, instances of all kinds of, all kinds of perversions of the Bible as well, right? And so it’s, um, that’s literature often makes his home in extremes of human behavior because literature is trying to figure out what makes human beings human. So, right? Oedipus is a story about man who kills his father and sleeps with his mother, doesn’t get more, you don’t taboos, don’t go deeper than that. So, um, so yeah, if you, you can’t, you can’t ban books just because you can’t be a novelist because the taboo subjects or controversial subjects because books have been doing that since the dawn of time.
Drexel: That was all I had for questions.