BY SARAH CAVAR '20
Students, faculty, staff and visitors walking into the LITS atrium may have noticed a display table, on top of which rest piles of banned books. You may have read these books or you may not have. Either way, the books’ physical presence at our library, free for anyone to pick up and read, sends a powerful message: we have the right to read these books, in their original form. This is a right that is too often denied by censors, who think that they have the right to control the words we can read.
This week, Banned Books Week, exists to honor this controversial literature and spread awareness about past and present threats to freedom of expression.
Banned Books Week is perhaps the most important holiday that no one is talking about, or more accurately, the most important holiday that few people even know about.
Occurring annually since 1982, during the last week of September, Banned Books Week celebrates our right to read banned, challenged and otherwise censored literature. The American Library Association utilizes Banned Books Week as a way to spread awareness of, and fight against, censorship of the written word that takes place across the country.
For students, it is particularly important to acknowledge the importance of the right to read — especially as a powerful tool against those in positions of power. Thus, it is of paramount importance to learn two things about book banning: who is banning the books, and why are they being banned?
Books are most often censored in public schools and libraries — places in which all individuals seek to expand their minds and gain a more well-rounded perception of themselves and the world. Book banning, which is disproportionately initiated by parents in the community, flies in the face of these institutions’ responsibility to help young people grow. It also severely inhibits the growth of marginalized young people, since according to the ALA, books containing “diverse content”and books by authors of color are censored at an alarming rate, one far greater than their non-diverse counterparts.
Why are books censored? Most often, according to the ALA, books are banned due to either their sexual content or their “offensive” language. Rarely are books banned for content that may legitimately harm a particular group (in 2014, only 2% of these books were censored for racism, and only 1% for sexism). The contrary is actually more accurate: between 2005 and 2014, the ALA saw significant growth in the number of censored books with diverse content. Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, which discusses at length the struggles of black people in the U.S., was one of 2014’s top 10 banned books. One of the stated reasons for this censorship on the ALA’s website is: “Contains controversial issues.”
Censors — most of whom are parents — seek to erase parts of the human experience such as sex, violence and cursing that they find unappealing. This may stem from a desire to protect children from unsavory concepts, but the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights reaffirms that “parents — and only parents — have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children — and only their children— to library resources. No adult has the right to police the mind of a child.”
Censors also seek to erase other parts of the human experience, such as being LGBTQ or religious. Four out of 2015’s top ten banned books were censored for “homosexuality” — and half of the top ten were censored for what was ambiguously termed a “religious viewpoint”, as the ALA notes on their website. The message comes across loud and clear: books which present existence in ways that some do not like are susceptible to censorship.
Most alarming, however, is the censorship of books presenting a view of reality that challenges the powerful. In 2014, the Tucson Unified School District banned some such books from classrooms, as the Banned Books Week Coalition highlighted. These banned works included “Rethinking Columbus: the Next 500 Years" by Bill Bigelow, “Critical Race Theory” by Richard Delgado, “Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The district lifted the ban, but only after vehement protest on the part of hundreds of Arizona schools.
Some may also remember Texas’s attempted censorship of the College Board’s A.P. U.S. History curriculum, citing what they consider to be “focus on U.S. ‘blemishes’”, the Washington Post reported. Other states attempted to follow suit, desiring to institute limits and biases on what students can learn about their own country’s history, and thus inhibit the critical thinking that the A.P. program promotes.
Many idealistic citizens like to see censorship as a fictional novelty (as in George Orwell’s “1984,” which, ironically enough, is still one of the most challenged classics in the country). They would rather view book-burning as a relic of the past, having given way to a free 21st century. Unfortunately, censorship is far from dead, although most of it goes unreported by the mass media. This Banned Books Week, fight back against people and institutions that want to limit your right to read educate yourself on current censor- ship issues, think critically about the media you consume, and most importantly, read banned books.