Tuesday, April 7, 2009

This One Really Did Happen

A book stripped of an award?

It's got to be another April Fool's joke.

Nope, this one's for real.

Theodore Taylor was a Hollywood press agent, a maker of documentary films, and a writer of nonfiction. During the 1950s, while doing research for a book about submarines, he came across a brief account of a Dutch vessel that was torpedoed by a German sub in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of those on board made it to a lifeboat, except for an eleven-year-old boy who ended up alone on a raft. The survivors on the lifeboat were headed to rescue him when the submarine suddenly surfaced between their craft and the raft. By the time the sub departed, the group aboard the lifeboat could no longer see the boy in the darkness. The image of this lone youth, forever floating lost at sea, haunted Mr. Taylor for the next dozen years.

It wasn't until 1968 that Theodore Taylor sat down to write the story. Inspired by having recently heard Dr. Martin Luther King sing spirituals in a hotel lobby, Mr. Taylor had his young white protagonist, Phillip, shipwrecked with an elderly black man. And to ratchet up the conflict, Taylor modeled Philip after a boy he grew up with in North Carolina: "He was passionate about his hatred for black people taught to him by his mother. It is very unusual to recall a playmate who at the age of eight had such a hatred for somebody because his skin was black. But, boy, he did. It seemed the right combination to use him as the little Dutch kid and to put him on that raft with a person whom he immediately hated." The resulting story came so easily that the author finished it in three weeks and sold it to Doubleday within a month. THE CAY was published in 1969, dedicated "To Dr. King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand." The following year it won the Jane Addams Children's Book Award, a prize given annually to children's books that "promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races, as well as meeting conventional standards for excellence."

Five years later that prize was revoked.

Although THE CAY was widely-praised upon publication, the Council on Interracial Books for Children held a dissenting opinion. In 1971, the Council's publication INTERRACIAL BOOKS FOR CHILDREN contained an article entitled "THE CAY : Racism Rewarded" by Albert V. Schwartz, who averred that the book "should be castigated as an adventure story for white colonialists -- however enlightened -- to add to their racial mythology." Mr. Schwartz particularly criticizes the "subservient" characterization of Timothy and states that Phillip doesn't really have his "consciousness raised" as a result of his eventual friendship with Timothy. Instead, "Phillip's growth is merely a shift in the direction of his racism." Schwartz says that the boy begins "to find in one Black man something acceptable to his own traditions and values, something that can elicit warmth and affection. But Phillip never gets past that. For him, the gap between them remains. He always judges Timothy by his own 'superior' white values."

Theodore Taylor was also criticized for having Timothy speak in a Caribbean dialect. The author responded, "I did not make him a black man from Brooklyn with a nasal New York accent. He was a black West Indian and I used the dialect as clearly as I could remember it. I used the dialect verbatim. [...] I had some public debates with black groups about him, which were uncomfortable for me, but I stuck to my guns in that I was not about to take this man I modeled the character after and put an eastern accent on him. I put him out there as he was."

THE CAY was eventually banned in many libraries and, when the book was adapted for a 1974 television production (starring James Earl Jones as Timothy), the Council of Interracial Books for Children organized a protest march outside NBC.

Finally, in 1975, the Jane Addams Peace Foundation asked for Mr. Taylor to return their award. Infuriated, he tore the award off the wall of his office where it had been hanging for five years and then started to race down the steps with it...and ended up falling down the stairs and almost breaking his leg. He immediately sent the award back to the Foundation -- and shipped it collect!

The author continued to defend his book for the rest of his life, saying, "THE CAY is not racist, in my firm belief, and the character of Timothy, the old black man, modeled after a real person, is 'heroic' and not a stereotype." He also said that the controversy actually helped sales of the book. Still in print, in both hardcover and paperback, THE CAY has become a minor classic over the past four decades. It is read and studied in schools and although the controversy has died down somewhat, Taylor continued to receive critical mail for many years. In 1993 he published a companion volume, TIMOTHY OF THE CAY, which fills in some of the questions about Timothy's background.

Despite the fact that the prize was revoked, THE CAY is still listed as the 1970 winner of the Jane Addams Children's Book Award on that organization's website.


Anonymous said...

That was interesting.

Penni Russon said...

Sigh, I really love your blog.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I had no idea of the controversy surrounding this book. My 4th grade teacher read it aloud to our class back in 1976 and I was entranced. Last year my son brought it home from school, so I re-read it for the first time since 1976. I was surprised, maybe even shocked, by Timothy's dialect, but only because I didn't have any memory of Timothy sounding Caribbean. I don't know if my teacher read the book using his dialect or not. I do remember as a child feeling uncomfortable with Phillip's attitude towards Timothy.

Kipik said...

I haven't read that book but it seems that whenever a book doesn't makes us feel good about our world or challenges us, we ban it. If by the end of the book the little boy realised fully what his prejudices were, we would feel good... but would that be a realistic story? no. Do we want to preach to the converted only?

Katy Horning said...

Actually, I don't think the award was ever officially revoked by the Jane Addams Peace Association, so that's probably why it still appears on their website. I believe Theodore Taylor made the decision to return the award all on his own after the chair of the 1975 committee publicly stated that she thought the 1970 committee had made a mistake.

Taylor wrote a long letter to Top of the News (April 1975), explaining his decision and his actions (minus the falling down the stairs part). The same issue of Top of the News published a position paper from the Council on Interracial Books for Children, criticizing "The Cay."

I know a scholar who has studied the Jane Addams Award extensively. I'll double-check with her to see what she knows about this situation.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thanks to everyone for their comments -- and a "sigh" back to Penni because I really enjoyed UNDINE!

KT, you may be right that the Jane Addams Award was never "officially" revoked, but I do think it was more than just a later chairperson publicly commenting that he should return the award. According to my source, BEHIND THE COVERS by Jim Roginski, Taylor actually received a letter "from the Jane Addams people...saying they wanted me to return the award." He talks about his wife bringing the letter to his office and how he angrily grabbed the award off the wall and raced toward the stairway...and ended up falling down the stairs.

Thanks for the info about the TOP OF THE NEWS article. I will have to check it out.


Katy Horning said...

Hi, Peter, I have been in touch with Susan C. Griffith who has done extensive research on the Jane Addams Award, including going through the papers included in the archives at Swarthmore College, and she found no evidence that the award was ever rescinded.

But Susan did find the likely source of the misinformation about it (other than Taylor himself). Bertha Jenkinson, chair of the 1975 Jane Addams Award Committee, wrote a statement saying that she thought that giving the 1970 award to "The Cay" had been a mistake. This statement was printed in the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin in 1975, along with statements, pro and con, from several others, under the headline "Revoking The Cay Award: The Establishment Cries Foul!" Since there was nothing in the article itself that indicated the award had been revoked, this headline was misleading, at best.

Unfortunately, follow-up letter from Bertha Jenkinson to Bradford Chambers, editor of the Bulletin, admonishing him for the headline and clarifying that the award had never been revoked and that she had been speaking for herself, not for the Jane Addams Peace Association, was never printed in the Bulletin, in spite of the fact she explicitly asked him to correct this information.

Perhaps at some point Theodore Taylor received a letter, or a copy of a letter, when all of this was in the works that led him to believe there was some sort of official revocation, but that does not appear to be the case.

Ms. Yingling said...

I know that Mr. Taylor was very bitter about the television movie. He seemed a very kind man, and it is too bad that he had this much grief over a book that students love.

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