Interview of Gene Hyde, Head of Special Collections at UNC Asheville, February 1, 2018. Interviewed by Rosanna Garris.
RG: So, are you familiar with this book, The Bluest Eye?
GH: I have not read it, but I know what it is. By the way, I’m Gene Hyde I’m head of special collections at UNC Asheville, and its February 1, 2018.
RG: Thank you. One of the things we’re looking into for this project is specifically the censorship of sexually explicit content, especially in high school settings.The case we’re looking at was an Honors Junior level class that the book was banned in. So one of the questions we had was, on censorship, do you think there is an age group where it is appropriate to censor material, especially in the context of sexually explicit material.
GH: Well, when you say censor stuff, it’s one thing to have it in a formal educational setting and it’s another thing to have it in the privacy of your home and what you choose to do there. There’s the idea of community standards, too, I am not a public school teacher, but I have, however been on the board of trustees of a public library system, so I’ve dealt with it from the public library situation. I think that parents have to make their own decisions about stuff, but I also think that part of what the public education system is going to do is it is, by definition probably going to challenge some of your assumptions, and challenge things. I’m not going to say specifically that this should be banned or that should be banned but I will say, that as a librarian, I agree with the American Library Association’s code of ethics which says that all information should be free, or freely available, actually, I will read you a excerpt from the ALA code of ethics, it says, “As librarians we significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation and dissemination of information in a political system grounded in a informed citizenry we’re members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.” So, I’m a librarian. This is where I come from. So I personally think that the curricular decisions of an instructor in a school system should reflect that as much as they possibly can within their community standards.
RG: You kind of just answered this in part, but I’m looking for you to expound upon it, you said something about how the freedom of access to information was different from using it in a school setting, but then you also said that you should challenge your ideas. I don’t want to say where’s the line, but…
GH: Well that’s the community standards part. And it depends on what it is. I would imagine that the readings in classes that discuss health and sexuality would be different, say, in a private religious school, than they would be in a public school. There would be different things you would find in a private religious university than you would in a public university. Those community standards are different. The difficulty in the United States with our Bill of Rights and freedom of speech has always been “where’s that line.” What is acceptable? And I think we are seeing it challenged right now, all the time. But again, as a librarian I am about access to information. There’s also the theory that, and this doesn’t work in the public school system because people have things required, but in the larger system, if it offends you, don’t read it. Because there will by definition be something that is going to offend everybody.
RG: So another question I had, going off that again, one of the arguments you often hear is that there are other books you could be reading to get the same thing, that aren’t as offending, do you think there is a value to offending readers? In context of understanding a book as a literary work.
GH: Again, I am not in the public school system. I can see both sides. I think that literature should challenge your assumptions, I think at times literature can upset you, because literature reflects the larger human existence, which isn’t always pretty. It can help you learn how to deal with difference and how to view things that you’re not comfortable with. I think that there is a place in education for that, it’s a huge part of education. Then you get to the other side of that, which is to what level? With community standards, where do you draw that line. There’s one person that finds it offensive, what if the other thirty people in the class don’t? There’s ways to deal with those things, I guess. I can answer from the public library perspective, we’ve had challenged books when I was at the Montgomery Floyd Regional Library System in Radford, Virginia. There were different ways we would do it, if a book was challenged. We had one book that was challenged because it was in the children section, and it was dealing a little bit too explicitly with what one parent found were sexual things. We as a board did not necessarily agree with her perception about that, but we thought it might be appropriate to move that [book] to the young adults section as opposed to the children’s section; it was kind of the upper edge of that reading level. And we had a couple other things that were challenged from people whose perspectives were pretty conservative and each time the board met about that, each time we believed the book should remain in circulation. But, there was a board established for many purposes, but one of those was to vet these community ills, a community appointed board to sort of serve as a hearing committee when these things came up, so, reflecting community standards. We were all appointed by the county commissioner and in that capacity we were able to make those decisions working with the library director, so there’s ways that the community is involved with that. And, I may be getting this wrong but it seems like when I was reading something about how they were handing it in the public school system there was a board that was looking at it and talking about it.
RG: There was.
GH: You get different viewpoints that are representing different groups and the larger part of the community and it may be better to not teach that book because maybe the problems around it, and the things that it may bring up, overshadow and overcloud what the educational objectives are. I personally think that, as I mentioned, freedom of information, freedom of access is what I believe as a librarian.
RG: A lot of the times when we talk about the parents coming in and they’ve read a passage, or a chunk of the book, and they assume that’s what the whole book’s about. They don’t read the the book and use the context to understand it. In your experience, was that generally an issue?
GH: For almost every single book that was challenged when I was in the public library board, that was exactly what happened. A paragraph, or a page or a scene was pointed out as something that was objectionable. In fact, I think each time we did this the person, when asked, said they had not read the entire book.
RG: There was an argument, in favor of not censoring, and I thought it was interesting, and it was you can skip the sections that offend you. Do you think that that could be detrimental to using the book as a learning tool or do you think it would be beneficial? I know you had said that sometimes the negative effects outweigh the positive, so do you think that would be a useful way of dealing with that [challenge] instead of removing the book from use.
GH: I think the instructors have clearly chosen this book for specific things and has learning objectives tied in to it, and there would be, probably some different layers of larger learning process that were in that book. I think that it could be, or that a good instructor could allow that person to not read the section and then work with it or have a summary. There are middle grounds to make this work, ideally, you read the book and you work through what it challenges you on. To not expose people to stuff because you don’t like it, that is censorship and that’s got problems for democracy. I heard somebody say a long time ago, and I’m paraphrasing here, it was something like “the thing about the bill of rights is it gives other people the right to offend you”. So there you go.
RG: So for this book specifically, one of the things [challenged] was, not just child molestation that was the problem, it was the way it depicted child molestation, they said it depicted child molestation in a positive way, which was what people found offensive. You said that you think there’s benefit to being challenged and looking at things from a different perspective. Do you think there could be a benefit to understanding a perspective that is so deeply “othered”, because we assume child molestors equate to bad. Do you think there could be benefit to seeing their perspective in a different way?
GH: I haven’t Read the Bluest eye. So I didn’t know it was portraying that in a positive way
RG: Some of the corrilary complaints I read from people censoring this was that it is partially from the perspective of the man molesting the child, and he’s talking about why he’s doing it and people have a problem with seeing his reasoning and seeing how he thought it was good. But, do you think that there could be value there? And I know its hard for you to say because you haven’t read it.
GH: I mean, some literature is dark, read Cormac Mccarthy. Some of it doesn’t have much redemption in it, but those sorts of things, and I’m speaking in general terms, I can’t speak specifically to The Bluest Eye because I haven’t read it, but reading difficult literature, that is dark, can have its place. It’s a different thing between reading literature that is talking about the human condition than it is reading a political creed that is presenting a particular viewpoint, not as literature, but that is trying to sway. That’s a different issue. Reading a Klu Klux Klan tract is different than reading about racism in literature.
RG: I don’t know if you were familiar with this case, because it was so recent.
GH: I wasn’t.
RG: I don’t think it ever actually ended up being banned, I think that the special counsel ended up deciding that that child could be given a special assignment.
GH: I didn’t know this case, but like I said as a librarian I am very familiar with the whole banned books process and we celebrate banned books every year with Banned Books week. This is one of many, many, many, many examples of where, with the public sharing of information through the public school system and through the libraries, some people object to it [a book], as is their right, and they say “I’d prefer that this not be there” and then you take it, through different ways, and see what to do about that. But, you know, some people aren’t going to like things, and they have the right to say something about it.
RG: This ban actually happened during banned books week, which I thought was kind of interesting…
GH: I love Irony
RG: Yes, in a very ironic way. So one of the hot banned topics right now, is transgender issues.
GH: It’s challenging a lot of people
RG: Yes. Why do you think, this is a very broad question, but why do you think that whatever the big issue is, people don’t want to talk about in school?
GH: I don’t know. I mean, a lot of topics when they’re first introduced bother people a whole lot. The whole issue of gay rights in the forties and fifties and sixties was often violent and people were beat up and people were discriminated against. And there is still, to that extent a lot of that going on, and yet we have also reached the point that the US Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage, so some of these things take a while to evolve. Some people don’t ever agree with it, and some people do, but when it comes out into the public realm for discussion you get people having different levels of how they want to discuss it. I also think it’s very different now in terms of discussion because how easy it is to put your opinion out there, instantly to everyone, which has changed the dynamic of this level of public discussion. Social media really has just changed very much how these things can come out and explode, and be misrepresented and that bought as truth, and now you’re going to get me started about information literacy, and critically evaluating sources, which is part of what I do as a librarian. But, I do think that that has changed the dynamic of how these things happen. One person tweeting that they don’t like something and it’s a misrepresentation and it goes viral and pretty soon you’ve got 300 thousand people saying “this is wrong” and the actual thing wasn’t actually presented accurately. There’s that issue too, knee jerk reactions to stuff without any substance. And that’s a tangent, but there you go.
RG: On the same tangent though, we also talked about, recently in this class, about how we’ve seen a decrease in the isolating effect on minorities and groups that don’t feel they’re represented in literature because of the internet, because they can access different groups, but with what you said in mind with information literacy, do you think there is a net benefit or detriment? This is very tangential.
GH: To what, widespread sharing of information even if its not fact checked by everybody who accesses it?
RG: Do you think knowing that that occurs, but knowing that even though that’s occuring you’re also having people who are traditionally not seeing themselves in literature are accessing things, that could also not be fact checked. Do you think that there is any benefit?
GH: I’m not sure exactly what your question is.
RG: I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.
GH: Are you talking about how there is more of a voice in the widespread publication of novels and things like that for a more diverse communities that is reflecting how diverse we are now?
GH: I think that certainly, demographically, we are far more diverse than we used to be. With that awareness of diversity, you see that these things are cyclical. We elected an African-American president, that’s African-American not African-Kenyan, and part of that backlash was a lot of racism and increase activity with far right groups. And we’re going through that phase now, but the the question is: what is the next part of that cyclical nature of american history? Is it going to come out to be more open and progressive at the end? There are ebbs and flows in this sort of thing. Who would have imagined that a major television show would have been about a transgendered person? That was a huge hit. Who would have seen something like Modern Family on TV with openly gay people,? Twenty-five to thirty years ago you didn’t see that stuff. So I think popular culture catches up when they see a market for it, and seeing the market means it becomes a widely enough accepted thing where they can make money on it. Once you reach that point when you’re making money on it, then its mainstreamed. That’s just my observation about culture and not censorship. I am tangenting all over, so don’t put all this on the web.
RG: I think that’s everything.
GH: I don’t think I’ve given you much, just rambled and told you what the ALA code of ethics is.
RG: That’s helpful in a way. This is also one of our first steps, and you also gave me a lot of information about where to go next, so it was helpful in that way.
GH: Again, from the librarian’s perspective I think information should be freely available and everyone should have access to it. And you should use your own personal judgement about what you want to read or not, and in the public school system I think that there are other things that have to come into place about what curriculum is and how to monitor what could challenge some people. But, you know there’s just all kinds of view points out there and you should be able to access them. And there’s plenty of people that follow things and read things that I don’t agree with, but they have the right to do that, that’s the freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
RG: Well I think that’s everything, thank you so much.