A novel to be featured in Kenosha’s 2023 Big Read event has a County Board supervisor urging the city’s public library to choose an alternative because of depictions he described as both “graphic” and “pornographic.”
Supervisor Tim Stocker, who is on the Kenosha County Library System Board, has asked its Director Barbara Brattin, who is also the Kenosha Public Library’s director, to select an alternative to “Homegoing.” He does not feel the novel is suitable for the library’s reading program for teens or adults. He has also taken his concerns to the Kenosha County Board.
“I have tried to encourage a change to this choice,” Stocker said Sept. 20 to the County Board. “The librarian is unwilling to change to another book. Therefore, I’m bringing my concerns before this board.”
“There are parts of this book that could not be read out loud in a meeting like this. It describes the rape of a child in graphic and pornographic detail,” he said. “My question to the … librarian is, with all the wonderful literature available as a representative and a representative of the people of Kenosha, can you choose a book that is not so graphic and controversial?”
“Homegoing” is the story of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one who marries a white Englishman, the other sold into slavery. The story is set in the 18th century. For a time, unbeknownst to each other, both reside in the same “slave castle,” only the former lives a life of luxury in Ghana, while her sibling is held captive and later transported to America.
The Big Read is a program of the Kenosha Public Library, which has its own board of trustees and is not governed by the county library system.
Earlier this year, the city public library received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to play host again as a Big Read site, with Yaa Gyasi’s award-winning novel chosen as the 2023 selection. The event is celebrating 10 years of the Big Read locally next spring. Information on the Big Read, “Homegoing” and the author are posted on the Kenosha Public Library’s website.
‘Homegoing’ staying put
Brattin, who is not withdrawing the city public library’s participation from the Big Read or removing the novel from the library, said that while “Homegoing” is historical fiction it is “a very powerful way to relate to history.”
She said Gyasi has created “a brilliant novel that tells the history of the Gold Coast slave trade and its impact on future generations from the point of view of the conquered.”
“No one can dispute that the experiences of the enslaved included horrific violence and injustice and Gyasi candidly depicts these horrors,” she said. “The few violent scenes in the book cause some people to cry for its withdrawal from the Big Read and in some places, withdrawal from the library’s collection, but the book as a whole is so much more than those few scenes.”
As such, readers are asked to take a critical look at the legacy of slavery on generations whose ancestors were victims, the displacement of people and how it affects their identity and to examine the choices of the tribes who were complicit in the slave trade and whether those nations continue to make the same choices in foreign relations decisions, Brattin said.
“It’s important to talk through these questions, even if it can sometimes be uncomfortable to do so,” she said.
The book is currently available in a number of forms at the Kenosha Public Library, including digitally.
According to a list of frequently asked questions for next year’s Big Read, which will be making available a limited number of copies of the book free to the public, the 2023 community reading program and novel are geared toward adults.
The novel is also not part of Kenosha Unified’s curriculum either as a tool or a reference, according to district officials.
Backs book selection
Stocker’s report drew the attention of Lori Hawkins, organizer for Kenosha’s Congregations United to Serve Humanity, who spoke during public comments at last week’s County Board meeting. She noted the book’s status as the NEA Big Read selection.
Citing from the Big Read event’s homepage she said it “is meant to broaden our understanding of the world through the power of shared reading experience, showcasing a diverse range of themes, voices and perspectives to inspire meaningful conversations and connections in each community.”
Hawkins, who has already read through half the 320-page novel, admitted the book is “painful to read, but also fascinating in its historical sense and its characters.”
“The writing itself is beautiful. It is not pornographic,” she said. “Rather, it is graphic because it depicts what happened to enslaved Africans, millions of enslaved Africans, over hundreds of years — violence and taking away the right to protect one’s own body.”
Vigilance against censorship
She noted another message.
“The ability to tell one’s own story without censorship emerges as an important theme throughout the novel,” said Hawkins. “When asked what she hoped would be a reader’s takeaway from ‘Homegoing,’ Gyasi said she wants readers to recognize that all of the traumatic moments that we look at in our history have been individuals like us.”
Gyasi in a video interview said that it was important not to look at them “as masses” and to “put names and faces to them.”
Hawkins agreed with the assessment that the book is controversial.
“However, that speaks to us as a society, not to the contents of the novel. The controversy lies in our unwillingness, at times, as a society to address ideas and contents of books because they might address issues that make us uncomfortable,” she said.
She said that the job of the library system board, as defined on its webpage, is to meet six times a year to review financial statements, discuss and resolve countywide library issues and review and approve the annual system plan and budget.
“It does not state that the purpose of the board is to censor books chosen by professional librarians,” she said. She urged the community to “be wary” of actions to attempt censorship and thanked the supervisor for bringing “Homegoing” to her attention.
“It is my hope that before passing judgement on any novel, those tempted to do so first read it in its entirety with an open mind and allow others to do the same,” she said.
IN PHOTOS: KUSD African American Youth Initiative visits Chicago’s DuSable Museum