Roger Barbee – I was surprised to read that a large Florida school district, Duval County Public Schools, removed a child’s biography of Clemente in order to determine if it is “developmentally appropriate for student use.” 

Mr. Rick Stevens is a Florida pastor who serves on a book-reviewing subcommittee for the Florida Citizens Alliance. In that role he has said that school librarians should welcome an extra pairs of eyes to review books, and he believes that will lead to more pristine school libraries, stocked solely with texts devoted to the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic. He also says, “Sexual issues and sexuality — our children don’t need to be introduced to that. We don’t have to feel a responsibility to provide every kind of material for students.”

As a budding baseball playing youth growing up during the 1950’s my favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I liked the team even when adults and contemporaries in my life referred to it as “That N-word team.” After all, what player could be better for a young boy to worship than Jackie Robinson or Roy Campanella. Then arrived Roberto Clemente who dazzled fans and me with his play in right field and with his hitting. While Clemente was signed by my Brooklyn Dodgers  in 1955, a mistake by the team allowed him to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 where he spent his baseball career. Nevertheless, he and the Dodgers inspired me during my short career as a right fielder.

This is why I was surprised to read that a large Florida school district, Duval County Public Schools, removed a child’s biography of Clemente in order to determine if it is “developmentally appropriate for student use.” According to news reports, new Florida law states that all books in school libraries and classroom collections for independent reading must be reviewed by a certified media specialist. Books be free from:

  • Pornography – defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.”
  • Instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through three.
  • Discrimination in such a way that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

That last requirement must be why Jonah Winter’s picture book, Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was pulled from the shelves in Duval County. It is the story, illustrated by Raul Colon, of the Baseball Hall of Fame player, early Latino great, and humanitarian. Clemente is still revered in the Caribbean community for his baseball powers and remembered for the 1972 humanitarian flight to help earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Because reports explained that earlier aid to the victims had been stolen, Clemente decided to accompany the next shipment of aid to ensure its safety. The plane on which he rode crashed on takeoff and the great Clemente was killed. Winter tells Clemente’s inspiring story and part of it is the racism that he  faced as a young rookie in the Major Leagues. 

So, I wonder if this picture book was removed for inspection because Winter told the complete story of Clemente’s climb from the life of a poor boy in Puerto Rico to a $10,000 signing bonus in 1955-which was huge in that era. Yes, the book includes a few pages about the discrimination Clemente endured, so will it be banned after its removal for evaluation for that reason?

Since Pastor Stevens is on a committee of citizen reviewers and another set of eyes for librarians, I wonder if he will remove any Bibles from public school shelves in Florida. After all, the Old Testament book of Judges has such stories as that of Jephthah who killed his daughter and Sampson who brutalized foxes and lusted after harlots so much he allowed one to betray him. Will he remove Bibles because of Genesis 6 that tells the story of the “men of renown” who saw the daughters of the earth and mated with them? These and other parts of the Bible are far from pristine, but I wager that Pastor Stevens and other folk involved in the FCA would argue that while the Bible does contain those stories and more like them, its total message is of great importance. For instance, to understand and fully appreciate King David, we will be more capable to do so when we know from whence he came and the struggles he endured, such as learning about his early life as a shepherd boy and the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon. Both of these experiences, and more, are parts of King David’s life. They helped mold his character just like discrimination helped shape Clemente. To remove the uncomfortable parts of life is to tell our children that lives are pristine and level and without difficulties; but even Jesus warned us that trials and tribulations must be endured. Books about folk who overcame diversity inspire our children and should never be removed unless being checked-out to read and study.

Roger Barbee