PALM HARBOR — Several juniors and seniors in the Palm Harbor University High School International Baccalaureate program have a request of the Pinellas County school district.
They want “The Bluest Eye,” the first novel written by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, back in their advanced literature class.
Their principal banned the book after a review that was prompted by a parent who complained that the book contained scenes of a father raping his 11-year-old daughter. The district soon followed suit in removing it from all county high schools.
“The majority of our class feels it was a very important book in our education,” said senior Hannah Hipólito, who read the novel as an assignment last year. “We don’t want to see it go.”
Many juniors in the class that was supposed to read the novel this year have concerns, too, said student Eliza Lane, who with Hipólito organized a protest rally at the school during the Friday lunch period.
About 100 students came out to support the effort, which Lane described as “peaceful, but still powerful.”
Lane, a junior, said in an earlier interview that she read the book independently after learning it was no longer part of the course.
“You don’t learn and grow if you don’t put yourself in uncomfortable positions,” she said.
One goal of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, she said, “is to expose you to all sorts of perspectives, cultures and experiences and take them into account — not sanitizing them because they make you uncomfortable.”
Both students noted that, for every book assigned in their literature courses, the teachers send home a note explaining to parents all the areas of potential concern and offering an alternate title.
In the case of “The Bluest Eye,” Hipólito said, students also were allowed to not read the rape scene, as doing so would not detract from the overall meaning.
Neither considered the book “pornography,” as some parents and community members have contended, regardless of the pedophilia in the pages. Rather, they saw the material as a slice of life they might never otherwise experience or see, from the point of view of a Black girl who wishes to have blue eyes like a white girl.
“Bad things happen all the time in the real world,” Lane said, arguing that taking away the opportunity to have a teacher guide them through tough material robs them of important learning.
The students said they met with district officials to ask questions after the book, published in 1970, was banned from the class. Officials removed it without following a formal procedure described in school board policy, a decision that at least one board member and the Pinellas teachers union are questioning.
The district has clarified that students who acquire the book on their own still may bring it to school, read and discuss it, though not as part of a class.
Lane took away from the meeting that school officials could have left the book in the class. She cited a provision in state law that allows the use of material that might be considered harmful to minors if it has literary, artistic, political or scientific merit.
“They did have a choice, and we still have a case to make for this book,” she said. “The literary merit is far worth enduring that discomfort.”
Hipólito worried that if the removal of “The Bluest Eye” stands, particularly without any public discussion or formal review, it could lead to more bans.
“There’s just a lot of fear that a lot of the books we know and love are going to be taken from us,” she said, listing titles including “Persepolis,” “V for Vendetta” and “Parable of the Sower” as examples.
Each might contain passages that someone finds objectionable, whether related to sex, violence or some other difficult topic, she said. But they carry meaningful messages beyond those passages, such as learning to adapt to change, that can alter one’s entire world view, the students said.
They speculated that the legislators who wrote Florida’s new laws restricting instruction on race and gender, and changing the rules for selecting books, purposely made them vague. It has caused teachers to react with reticence, they said, for fear of getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing, or facing harassment from parents.
“Everyone is confused about what we can share, what perspectives are allowed,” Hipólito said. “The thing is, no perspectives should be banned.”