Chris Abani Censored by Florida School District

On Friday afternoon, JAX-4 TV reported that Chris Abani’s Graceland — a book that had been placed on a 10th grade summer reading list — was pulled because of a parent objecting to its content. The mother, who contacted JAX-4 anonymously by email, objected to the following passage:

Then, whistling softly under his breath, he began rubbing a cool white paste all over Elvis’s body. It felt good, soothing almost. Jerome smiled as he noted the expression. Still smiling, he took Elvis’s penis in one hand and gently smoothed the paste over it, working it up and down. Elvis felt himself swell. Jerome laughed and massaged Elvis’s penis faster and faster. It was not long before Elvis shuddered and shot semen all over his torturer’s hand.

Of course, if you think that Abani’s passage is hot stuff, consider how tame it is in comparison to the language found within Deuteronomy 23 — which comes from a book that I understand is quite widely available in Jacksonville, Florida:

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

So castration and violent warnings are okay for kids. But the consensus from this Florida handful is that the Abanai passage isn’t. It remains unclear how many parents objected. But it’s worth pointing out that the book is being banned at the high school sophomore level, not the elementary school level.

JAX-4 reported that the Mandarin High principal agreed with the complaint and proceeded to pull the book from the reading list.

What’s extremely curious is that another Mandarin High summer reading list for this year includes Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for tenth-grade students. And if Jacksonville parents are truly frightened by the prospect of high school students reading about sexuality, Adichie’s novel features the following passage:

“Obiora says you must be having sex, or something close to sex, with Father Amadi. We have never seen Father Amadi look so bright-eyed.” Amaka was laughing.

I did not know whether or not she was serious. I did not want to dwell on how strange it felt discussing whether or not I had had sex with Father Amadi.

So it seems quite hypocritical to remove one book for sexual description while keeping another openly available. Yet this is precisely the tactic that Duval County Public Schools has taken, fitting in with its prohibitive history.

The Chris Abani ban is hardly the first time that DCPS has removed or attempted to remove books from school libraries. In 1992, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was removed from DCPS libraries for “lurid passages about sex.” Additionally, in 1992, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was restricted to students who had parental permission to read the book. The cause? Because the book featured a caricature of a bare-bottomed individual stung by a bee. And according to the book Banned in the USA, in 1997, the Reverend Dale Shaw, president of the North Florida Ministerial Alliance, attempted to remove Richard Wright’s Black Boy from libraries, complaining of profanity at a Duval County School Board meeting. “It has historical value,” said Shaw at the time, “but that doesn’t make it right for high school students.”

But what’s the basis for Duval County’s protective approach? How precisely does Abani’s passage offend? Whatever the reason, the authorities in question appear to be just as anonymous as the mother who complained to JAX-4 News. As of Monday afternoon, representatives from DCPS and Mandarin High did not return my telephone calls for comment.