#835: Cannibals Need Free Speech Too – An ACLU Story

August 28th, 2017

On Oct. 2, I will be participating in a reading of banned books as part of a benefit for the American Civil Liberties Union. The organizers still in the planning stage, but I will update details on my Appearances page as I learn them.

Participants will read selections from a banned or challenged book, then share original essays inspired by the work. I have chosen to read my favorite children’s poem about familial cannibalism, “Dreadful” from Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”

The rough draft of my reading follows:

Dreadful
By Shel Silverstein

Someone ate the baby,
It’s rather sad to say.
Someone ate the baby
So she won’t be out to play.

We’ll never hear her whiney cry
Or have to feel if she is dry.
We’ll never hear her asking “Why?”
Someone ate the baby.

Someone ate the baby.
It’s absolutely clear
Someone ate the baby
‘Cause the baby isn’t here.

We’ll give away her toys and clothes.
We’ll never have to wipe her nose.
Dad says, “That’s the way it goes.”
Someone ate the baby.

Someone ate the baby.
What a frightful thing to eat!
Someone ate the baby
Though she wasn’t very sweet.

It was a heartless thing to do.
The policemen haven’t got a clue.
I simply can’t imagine who
Would go and (burp) eat the baby.

There are prettier poems from Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and I probably should have read from them. If I’m really going to work this crowd into a frenzy about the injustice of banned books, I should have read from something beautiful. I should have read to you about the place after the sidewalk where “the moon-bird rests from his flight / To cool in the peppermint wind.” I should have praised the hug-o-war or the language of flowers. I should have asked if you’re “a dreamer, a wisher, a liar / A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer” and invited you to come in.

Instead, I read to you about cannibalism and belched in your face.

“Dreadful” was one of the nastier poems that got the book challenged by the West Allis-West Milwaukee school district in 1986 and this poem was the specific reason the book was challenged in the Central Columbia School District in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania in 1993. It always grossed me out as a kid. Strangely, more for the loud belch than the image of a small child devouring an infant. But either way, this poem is straight-up nasty.

It’s the nastiness I’m defending.

Shel Silverstein is the perfect combination of poetic and nasty. He wrote some of the most beautiful and most disgusting words of our childhood and drew no distinction between them. He wrote the beloved Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” and, years later, a sequel in which Sue becomes his father’s cross-dressing sex slave and you can Google that if you think I’m lying.*

Both the poetic and the nasty need protection. The ACLU exists for all. They fight for our words, and our right to share them, whether the ACLU is taking the side of gay marriage, trans rights, abortion rights, civil liberties regardless of race, creed or gender.

Or whether they’re defending Nazis who want to march in Skokie, Oliver North, Rush Limbaugh, the organizer of the recent Charlottesville rally in his case against the city for trying to revoke his permit. It would be a lot simpler to talk up the pretty words the ACLU defends and pretend the nasty, ugly and… dreadful don’t exist, but it would be a lot less true. And the ACLU would be a lot less vital to our survival as a society if it only defended the pretty.

I could stand up here and ask if you’re a magic bean buyer, read from Shel’s beautiful more poem-y poems, trigger nostalgic memories of the Unicorn, of a brontosaurus named Horace or Morris, or of Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Who Would Not Take the Garbage Out.

Instead, I stand here and defend the garbage. The garbage Skokie protesters. The garbage Charlottesville organizers. The garbage human beings whose sacred right to words the ACLU defends day in and day out because there is free speech or there is no speech.

We don’t defend words because they’re beautiful or eloquent or insightful. We defend words because they’re words.

One group has been fighting for these words in this nation for nearly a century and the fact they make no more distinction between the nasty and majestic than Shel Silverstein does is why I carry my ACLU membership card in my wallet, and will until the day I die.

Read a piece I read at the Paper Machete about cavemen

Read about a fundraiser I co-organized in January (It raised $1,200!)

Also, go to The Stoop. It’s the best damn storytelling show in town.

* I was not kidding about the “Boy Named Sue” thing

 

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