Banned Books Week, from a US perspective ended earlier this month (September 27 – October 3, 2020). The UK’s Banned Books Week was the previous week, but I’m taking this time to examine some of the books I’d previously read, which have featured on the censors’ list. Why were they banned in a country where the freedom of speech has been enshrined in the constitution?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.US Constitution, First Amendment – Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition
Whenever I think of the banning of books, I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s classic Farenheit 451, and the sight of burning pyres we were shown in history classes as we learnt about the lead up to the Second World War, with the Nazis burning books, as well as more recently the white minority burning books in apartheid South Africa.
First off, what is Banned Books Week, you may ask? Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Earlier this year, there was some furore that Amazon had listed 10 Little Nigger Boys by Agatha Christie. The issue many had with Amazon was that it had stocked this title. They didn’t realise the book had its name changed several times. First to 10 Little Indians and finally And Then There Were None. For me, the idea of removing books from public consumption needs to be well considered. The title might cause offense, but the subject matter wasn’t illegal then or now, and as a lover of books and critiquing them seeing the books as a whole, as well as the environment the writer was writing in (at times). What inspired them? Why did they choose a title etc etc
A common theme amongst the banning of books books written in America were that they discussed race, as well as the racial oppression of Black Americans by the white powers that be.
Can you imagine the literary world devoid of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison etc because a bureaucrat decided the book lacked literary value. Censorship in these instances are in my view an attempt to suppress the Black voice and narrative, when they are retelling their (own) experience. The conditions that they lived in don’t seem to be called into question – being sexually or racially abused, but speaking their truth causes offence. As my friends would say ‘make it make sense’!!!
Let’s look at a few books in more detail, that have been banned elsewhere in the world. These are some of the books that were taught as part of the English Literature National Curriculum, from year 7 (aged 11) up to A-Level (aged 17/18) when I was at school. This doesn’t necessarily reflect the current curriculum, following the reforms lead by Michael Gove in the Noughties.
Many will be familiar with The Color Purple by Alice Walker, as the film directed by Steven Spielberg that introduced the world to Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. The book tells the story of Celie through a series of letters, first to God and then to her sister Nettie over a number of decades, in rural Georgia. Themes in the book included sexual abuse, sexism, gender roles, race, sexuality and the dynamic of female relationships. This doesn’t sound offensive right?
Well, people raised concerns about the book for numerous reasons, most recently in 2017 including religious objections, homosexuality, violence, African history, rape, incest, drug abuse, explicit language, and sexual scenes. These challenges were all eventually overruled. In 2017, “The Color Purple” was successfully banned from all Texas State Prisons for explicit language and graphic depictions of violence.
Turning to Toni Morrison’s critically acclaimed debut novel The Bluest Eye – this book has appeared on many banned lists. It was the second most challenged books of 2013, and the fourth most challenged book of 2014 on the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of most challenged books. Some of the reasons cited include accusations of “sexually explicit material,” and “lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language.” Set just after The Great Depression, it tells the story of a young African-American girl named Pecola. Her dark skin leads to her being regarded as ugly by those around her, and her wishing for blue eyes. The themes of whiteness as the standard of beauty is evident from the title alone. But, sexual abuse also features, as Pecola is raped twice through the course of the book.
I was introduced to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou when I was 14, and remains one of my favourite books decades later. It is the first of the seven book autobiographical/ memoir series. This book is a coming of age story recounting Maya’s childhood from the age of three through to 17, when she became a mother. Her story addresses molestation, rape and racism. It’s odd to think that someone’s lived experience would lead to being banned when a society should care about its children. However, calls have been made for it to be banned included the fact it was felt it promoted hatred towards white people; graphic depictions of molestation and explicit language. This has lead to the book being one of the 10 most challenged books in America. However, as Maya said in her own words she has been able to rise and went onto become one of America’s most loved and celebrated authors/ poets.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to not add the 2017 debut Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. The book tells the story of Starr, who witnesses the fatal shooting, by the police, of her best friend, and what happened afterwards. The reasons for this book being banned is that it was felt it was anti-police, as well as the language used and drugs. As with the other books cited previously, this is the reality for people on both sides of the Atlantic, so if giving Black people a humanity in a book can lead to those who responding to us with brutality taking a moment and saying they are people and let’s not respond with violence when we are in authority, it’s a good thing.
Without being introduced to these authors and books, my peers at school would have been deprived of some modern literary classics, and not seen people who looked like us in the works we studied…. with the exception of Othello by the ever present William Shakespeare. Being exposed to books like these also makes the majority of the class (read white people) more understanding of the social dynamics of the world we live in. Understanding the near recent history also provides the student with context as to the current social condition, e.g. why we are asking for Black Lives to Matter.
Finally, it is not to say that it’s only books written by Black authors that have been called to be banned, as books about other oppressed/ marginalised groups are also subject to censure. This could be due to religion, sexuality or gender. It’s why some schools can call for the Harry Potter series to be banned from shelves (as magic is frowned upon) or The Handmaid’s Tale (as it opposes religious fundamentalism in near future United States if America). I could go on, as it’s evident that I am passionate about books. I will however stop here, but I do hope we can continue the conversation.
Let me know your thoughts below?