Trigger Warnings: Maya Angelou's Uncomfortable Facts and Truths
by Clarence Page
Caution: The following tribute to the late great author-poet
The previous paragraph is called a "trigger warning," a disclaimer of the sort that often has been applied to online discussions about rape, sexual abuse and mental illness. In recent months they have spread to a place where power struggles can be most intense: college campuses.
Student leaders at the
Similar motions have been proposed at
To which I ask, what is the purpose of literature and other arts if not to occasionally shock or alarm students, among other people?
Trigger warnings are presented as a civilized way to alert students that some particularly challenging material is coming up. Fine. But that decision is better left to the classroom instructor than to an outside body of students or administrators.
It is important to think about people's feelings and avoid unnecessary distractions. But they also lead to a hypersensitivity about how we think other people might feel when educators should be offering more challenges to help them to improve how they think.
It is not surprising that the book's story line would make educators reluctant to give "Caged Bird" to students younger than, say, high school. Angelou's life story, beautifully told, is that of a black girl who grew up in the racism and sexism of the Depression-era South, was raped at the age of eight by a boyfriend of her mother and was traumatized so badly by the experience that she stopped talking for almost five years.
Yet, as her story continues to her recovery and maturation, partly under the healing guidance of a family friend who prodded to read books -- lots of books from a local library.
Other hardships would come in her life, including unmarried motherhood at age 17. But so did many triumphs as a writer, poet, singer, dancer, actor, movie director and activist with both Malcolm X and the Rev.
Her legacy to literature is immense. Before "Caged Bird,"
With its graphic story of
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Right on. Efforts to make classrooms more comfortable for everybody are commendable, but they should not inhibit everyone's ability to cope with the world as it is.
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Article: Copyright © 2014, Tribune Media Services.
"Trigger Warnings: Maya Angelou's Uncomfortable Facts and Truths"