My childhood in Levittown was idyllic. The children were everywhere. And the Island Trees School District seemed like a good place to grow up.
However, during my last two years in high school, Island Trees was embroiled in a bitter controversy over banning books, an experience that changed my sensibilities: about my hometown, censorship, and racism.
At the time, he was unaware that Levittown’s developer, William Levitt, prohibited his homes from being “used or occupied by anyone other than Caucasian.” Later, the courts would declare such racial conventions unenforceable. But the damage was done. I grew up in a Levittown almost completely devoid of people of color.
In 1975, my third year, the Island Trees Board of Education removed nine books from school libraries, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, after they appeared on a list of books, compiled by a conservative group, deemed unfit for reading. public school libraries.
The books included Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” Bernard Malamud’s “The Fixer,” Desmond Morris’s “The Naked Ape,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.”
Parents, teachers and students were outraged. The board defended itself by saying that the books were “un-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain dirty” and that “it is our duty, our moral obligation, to protect the children in our schools from this moral danger.”
I went to the next board meeting. Several things surprised me. Did the police always attend these meetings? Did yelling and profanity regularly bounce around the room?
A review committee created by the board recommended that five books should return to library shelves. The board ignored that advice and banned all but one, Oliver La Farge’s “Laughing Boy.”
Looking back, the most significant thing about the books is that many were written, edited, or about people of color. Banning them smacked of racism, pure and simple. That these events took place in what was then an all-white community with a history of racially restrictive housing covenants only made matters worse.
I admire Steve Pico and the other students who sued the board of education. That suit reached the United States Supreme Court in 1982, by which time I had graduated from college and was working in Washington. I took the day off and waited in a long line to secure one of the seats reserved for spectators.
That June, a divided Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students’ demand for a trial. Justice William Brennan wrote that “school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they do not like the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what should be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of public interest. opinion. ‘” Six months later, the board finally allowed the books to return to library shelves.
Even now, I find those events disturbing. Yes, the board has finally reversed its misguided decision to ban the books. And yes, the outrage woke me up from my adolescent naivety about my hometown.
But have the attitudes that led the board to ban the books really changed? Nationally, it seems that we have entered a new era of intolerance and censorship, from both ends of the political spectrum. Thanks in large part to my involvement in the Island Trees book ban debacle, I’ve long believed that the best way to combat hateful ideas is not to shut them down, but to come up with better ideas in the hope that others will listen. But are we really listening?
This invited essay reflects the views of David Balton, a Levittown native now living in Washington.
This guest essay reflects the views of David Balton, XXX