School district’s book ban sparks debate 

A book about South African apartheid, deemed graphic and inappropriate by a complaining parent, has been pulled from the Burlingame School District curriculum, raising questions over what warrants the prohibition of a book.

The debate ensued at Tuesday night’s board meeting after Superintendent Sonny Da Marto pulled Mark Mathabane’s "Kaffir Boy" from eighth-grade classrooms and the Burlingame Library. The autobiography details graphic accounts of Mathabane’s adolescence in a South African ghetto.

Da Marto made his decision two weeks ago after receiving an e-mail complaint from a parent, stating the book was too graphic. Da Marto said the school district’s policy gave him the discretion to pull the book from schools’ curriculum.

The meeting, however, aimed to hash out concrete criteria for the selection of reading materials in schools. Several screening ideas were proposed, such as permission slips and a review of certain books by the school board.

"I’m also concerned about some children … who are not emotionally prepared to read this," he said.

He added that Mathabane might visit Burlingame to talk to students about the book, something the superintendent welcomes. However, Da Marto would like an alternative version of "Kaffir Boy"— with modified language — to replace the original version for students. "The abridged version is appropriate," he said.

In "Kaffir Boy," Mathabane describes the oppressive hardship and violence of the apartheid firsthand. While violence pervades the story, in chapter 10, boys are described prostituting in order to eat. In a brief passage, the male genitalia are described.

The term "Kaffir" was an epithet used by white people against black people in South Africa, similar to the N-word.

"Kaffir Boy" initially was selected in 2005 by a Core Literature Committee of teachers, parents and students. Notification slips were sent to parents in advance, but parents only returned them if they objected.

Board member Marc Friedman said that abruptly yanking the book sent the wrong message to students. He added that students "were reading pages already in the hundreds … so they already read" the passage in question.

Board member Liz Gindraux said a modified replacement of the book would shortchange the impact on students.

Last summer, a similar debate arose at a Manteca high school when a group of angry parents asked the school board to ban it. The board decided not to adopt the book’s modified version and instead allow students to skip chapter 10 or read a different book that also focused on the apartheid.

Published in 1986, the book’s popularity took off after Oprah promoted it on her show. But it’s not without controversy, named on a list released by the American Library Association of the most-challenged books of the 1990s.

bfoley@examiner.com

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