Critique and illustration by: Chris Talbot-Heindl
As those of you who follow The Bitchin’ Kitsch on any social media are well aware, September 22-28 was Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is the national book community’s annual celebration of the freedom to read, and most people celebrate it by reading a banned book. Most of my favorite books of all time can be found on that list.
This year, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie to commemorate the books that are simply too challenging for the larger populace (as I like to refer to banned books). It took me a full month and a week between start and finish. Partly because of how busy I am lately, but also partly because of how verkelmpt the book got me personally.
I’ve never been a full-time or part-time Indian, and I’ve never lived on a reservation, but I have been a mixed-race, part-Native-American who never knew my culture or felt entirely separate from it.
I can say with certainty that Alexie captured for me what it feels like to be growing up completely disconnected from an identity, not white enough to be accepted by white people; not Native enough to fit in the Title IX Indian Education Program at my school. (In fact, truth be told, I was the “Student of the Year,” in 2001, but because I wasn’t “enough” Native, I did not receive the scholarship that accompanies that honor.)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian follows the protagonist, Junior or Arnold, as he ventures outside of the reservation in order to get a better education at a nearby “white school.” As the reader, you experience the disconnect as Arnold moves farther away emotionally from the rez, as the other rez Natives separate themselves from him, and as he realizes he doesn’t fit in the white world or the rez.
We see Arnold learn to lose – lose people to alcohol and death, lose himself to white culture, lose friends through a feeling of abandonment. We see Arnold also gain a new perspective.
The book, for me, is a must read for anyone with a mixed-race heritage, for any Native American student in a public school, and for anyone who may want to better understand what it means to be “the other” amid your white counterparts.
And yet, in 2008, a parent in Crook County, Oregon took offense to the mere reference of masturbation and the book was immediately removed from the shelves.
In 2009, a parent group at Antioch High School in Chicago called it racist and vulgar and called for its removal.
In 2010, the Stockton, Missouri school board voted to ban the book.
In 2011, Richland School Board voted to ban it from classrooms of any grade level.
In my opinion, books that are banned are often banned to protect – not the children (as parents would have you believe), but the status quo and white privilege. The idea that this book would be banned based on it being “racist” is absolutely absurd. Absolutely True is just that – absolutely true. The ideas and the language used in the book are as true to life as anything I’ve ever read. The book doesn’t pull punches and points to all the types of racism that Arnold experienced (from both cultures), being a Native who goes to a white school.
The book uses incidents to point to different experiences that are true on the rez, that may not be well understood in larger society – drinking, the amount of DUI deaths, racism within the community and coming in from outside. The anecdotal scenes lead to realizations by Arnold and help the reader better understand all the elements at work in his life.
For instance, Arnold’s white school plays his old rez school in an epic basketball game and rematch – the Rearden Indians (white school) vs. the Wellpinit Redskins (rez school). In the original game, the Wellpinit Redskins smear the Rearden Indians with Arnold receiving a concussion and needing stitches, courtesy of his ex-best-friend from the rez, Rowdy. Arnold feels ashamed that he couldn’t prove himself and hurt that Rowdy intended to hurt him.
The next game, Arnold blocks against Rowdy the entire game and breaks his spirit by blocking a dunk and going on to score. (Forgive me, I don’t speak sportball.)
In his excitement, he thinks, “We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath!
“And then I realized something.
“I realized that my team, the Rearden Indians, was Goliath…all of the seniors on our team were going to college. All of the guys on our team had their own cars…
“Okay, so maybe my white teammates had problems, serious problems, but none of their problems was life threatening.
“But I looked over at the Wellpinit Redskins, at Rowdy.
“I knew that two or three of those Indians might not have eaten breakfast that morning.
“No food in the house
“…I knew that none of them were going to college. Not one of them.”
Anyone challenging a book that tells an uncomfortable truth obviously does not have the experience. And anyone trying to ban their children from learning of the truth of society and its treatment of marginalized groups is not acting in the best interest of their child. They are only succeeding in keeping their children ignorant.
As Sherman Alexie put it, “I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that.”