Political Censorship at the NEA: The Story of Color

If you have labored under the misapprehension that the National Endowment for the Arts survived the Republican Congressional assault which almost resulted in its demise with any dignity left and any pretenses that it was more than a servile and hypocritical instrument of government policy, look no further than the front page of today's NY Times (March 11, 1999). The story "NEA Couldn't Tell Book by Its Cover" relates the fate of a children's' book entitled "The Story of Color" which went through the grant process and was about to be released with the agency's endorsement and financial assistance when the chairman of the endowment, in an act of all-too-revealing political hysteria, withdrew the Neal's imprimatur and "generous" financial support (without which it indeed could not have been published), thus effectively censoring the book in question.

You see, the author of "The Story of Color" happens to be the enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista front based in Chiapas, Mexico, a man whose movement has displayed incredible audacity, courage, resourcefulness and imagination in effectively bringing the demands of the disenfranchised of Mexico to the attention of its government and the world. Besides leading the Zapatistas, Marcos -- a former University professor -- writes children's books and judging by the description of the one whose translation under the imprint of US based Cinco Puntos Press was nixed by the NEA's chairman -- very vivid, beautiful and unusual books.

NEA Chairman William Ivey cancelled the grant after a reporter called and brought to his attention the fact that the book his agency had endorsed was an "inappropriate" piece of work. Not only that, but there were fears that some part of the agency's money might end up in the tattered pockets of the Zapatista subcommandante himself. What rubbish! The book, according to specialists in this literature, is a particularly fine representative of the "multiculturalism" the agency supposedly embraces (or to which they, like so many other bureaucratic outfits, give much lip).

This rescinding of the grant to Cinco Puntos Press is an act of political censorship of literature pure and simple. Rather than saving the face of NEA which is apparently what the panicked Mr. Ivey intended, it tears the mask from the face of the NEA and what it reveals is not pretty.

ALA Council and membership, all committees and round tables and offices, should respond to this act of political cowardice with a show of public support for Cinco PuntosPress of El Paso Texas and for Bobby Byrd the editor/translator whose project this was. And we should rise quickly to condemn NEA chairman William Ivey for this violation of intellectual, literary and artistic freedom.

Mark C. Rosenzweig
Councilor at large