In honor of the 31st annual Banned Books Week, we asked our staff to tell us about their experiences with banned books and their thoughts on censorship.
Naima: Despite the shock that ensued following the recent revelations of the American government spying on its citizens, there is something quite familiar about surveillance. It is not only the 21st-century advancement of technology that has given ‘authorities’ the mechanisms to keep an eye on citizens–it is a historical phenomenon among all kinds of sovereign powers. Books have been banned and news reports censored. Governments have kept information from their citizens and misled entire populations. This happened long before the internet, or the web, or surveillance drones. Today, technology has merely facilitated the phenomenon; it has not caused it.
Daniel: Looking through the list of banned books, I was struck by how writing can scare people. Books can say absolutely anything. It seems to be okay when the good guys win, or the status quo remains intact, but problems arise when the books tell dark, disturbing, and foul stories, or when they challenge the reader.
In many ways, writing is in itself a political act. The subject doesn’t necessarily have to relate to politics, but the writer is forcing himself on the reader. The reader has two choices: read every word and experience every moment, or stop reading. That’s the power of writing. It challenges values and belief systems.
I hope to write a banned book one day.
Tolly: When I was child I was cast as Scout in a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. I was thrilled, but I was worried about one of my lines, “What’s a nigger?” I knew the word’s meaning and I desperately wanted to avoid saying it, but the line’s importance transcended my discomfort. This moment serves to define Scout’s family as different from the unsavory characters also living in the fictionalAlabama town. Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, replies to the question with an eloquent speech about the importance of respecting everybody and admonishes the slur. Since the book’s publication in 1960, Atticus has served as an example of courage against prejudice for readers worldwide. Yet the book is still regularly challenged among school boards because of its racial slurs. The discomfort caused by the controversial choice of words stops some readers from seeing the true messages that pervade the Pulitzer Prize winning work.
Ashawnta: As I skimmed the lists of frequently challenged books, one thought kept coming back to me: many of these books are sometimes the only way that those of us who don’t fit in–those whose skin marks them as different, those who break from binaries, and those whose families aren’t usually represented–can see themselves, ourselves, reflected in the world. These books are how their stories are told, how they know they matter. And that is possibly the most devastating result of censorship: people who believed that we were all a part of the fabric of our society finding out it wasn’t true after all. Not only are our stories not worth being told, but having them told “damages” society.
But having these voices means that we are here. Fighting for these voices to be heard means that we matter.
Charlotte: A friend and I once had a heated discussion about a book on the required summer reading list for her daughter’s 6th grade class. My objection was to the children being forced to read something that was not of their choosing. My friend’s objection was to the content—it included rape–which she felt was inappropriate for her 11-year-old. She was distraught because no one in the school district would hear her objections. She was being blown off as a problem parent. She—very conservative—and I—progressive and liberal—have a lot in common in some uncommon ways and usually have interesting conversations. In the midst of her dismay she exclaimed that the book should not be made available through the curriculum to any child, that this was not a kid’s book. I thought, oh boy, this is how it starts. But when I asked her if she thought the book should be banned she replied, “of course not!