Theresa-Bennett-Wilkes-Author

LITERARY CENSORSHIP: CELEBRATING YOUR FREEDOM to READ

Reading had changed forever the course of my life.

Malcolm X

Theresa-Bennett-Wilkes-Celebrate-Books

Literary censorship poses a continuing threat to the freedom to read. It is arbitrary, capricious, subjective, and biased. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition provides the following definition: ²censor, censored; censoring…to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <~the news>; also: to suppress or delete as objectionable <~out indecent passages…

Authors who succeed in engaging the gamut of human emotions have done an admirable job of forging a psychic connection. What is the value of a story – regardless of its length – if it leaves the reader unaffected? Despite the obvious answer, efforts to deny and/or restrict access to literature deemed inappropriate or offensive continue.

I participated in the Banned Book Readout at Thomas F. Holgate Library, on the campus of my alma mater, Bennett College in Greensboro, NC on September 22, 2014. I had no appreciation of the meaning of my involvement for censorship has never been an issue for me. I left the event enthused and committed to future activities, nonetheless something about it stayed with me.

The library’s list of banned books features African-American authors, many of them well known and respected:

  • Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Still I Rise.
  • James Baldwin: Another Country, Blues for Mr. Charley, Go Tell It on the Mountain, If Beale Street Could Talk, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone.
  • Ernest J. Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying.
  • Alice Walker: The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar.
  • Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man.
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved, Sula, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon.
  • Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son.
  • Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  • Eldridge Cleaver: Soul on Ice.
  • Alice Childress: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich.
  • Langston Hughes: The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers.
  • Nikki Giovanni: My House

I was incensed, appalled, and confused. Many of these authors are part of my personal library. I love their creations. I felt I understood the reasons on a personal level, yet the very act rooted itself in my conscious mind daring me to ignore it. I told Margaret I wanted to write a post – I just needed to carve out time. The Universe wasn’t content to let matters lie. The September 25th edition of The Carolina Peacemaker featured a press release issued by Scuppernong Books, an independent bookseller also located in Greensboro, who announced their plans to participate in Banned Books Week 2014. My awareness of censorship and its impact on literary writing was suddenly front and center. Who, I wondered, would engage in such outrageous behavior? And why? After all, reactions to the written word vary from reader to reader.

The American Library Association established Banned Books Week to celebrate the freedom to read. “Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information…[bringing] 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.

By focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books, Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship [emphasis added].  Check out the frequently challenged books section to explore the issues and controversies around book challenges and book banning [at: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek.] The books featured during Banned Books Week have all been targeted with removal or restrictions in libraries and schools. While books have been and continue to be banned, part of the Banned Books Week celebration is the fact that, in a majority of cases, the books have remained available. This happens only thanks to the efforts of librarians, teachers, students, and community members who stand up and speak out for the freedom to read…” Excerpted from http://www.ala.org/bbooks/bannedbooksweek. 

“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. More than 11,300 books have been challenged since 1982 according to the American Library Association. There were 307 challenges reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom in 2013…” The top ten titles are:

  • Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey. Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James. Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  • A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone. Reasons: Drugs/Alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  • Looking for Alaska, by John Green. Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.
  • Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  • Bones (series), by Jeff Smith. Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence…” excerpted from http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about

Molly Driscoll, a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, compiled a list of twenty banned books for the 2011 Banned Book Week in a piece entitled, 20 banned books that may surprise you. Sixteen of them are children’s books:

  • The Witches, by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Reason: Misogyny. Dahl asserts only women can be witches. Apparently freedom of opinion doesn’t matter when challenging the content of a book.
  • Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault. Reason: Little Red Riding Hood has wine in her basket. Stop laughing.
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. Reason: the text contains magical elements and includes references to drugs and alcohol. No joke!!!
  • Where’s Waldo, the series, by Martin Hanford. Reason: One of the characters depicted is a topless woman on a beach. My, my…what is the world coming to?
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. Reason: Librarians found Mr. Sawyer to be a protagonist of questionable morals.
  • Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. The police portrayed in the book’s illustrations are depicted as pigs. Ironic?
  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Reason: the heroine sets a bad example for children by encouraging them to spy, lie, and swear. Seriously? Have another glass of wine.
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. Reason: perceived socialist values and good Pick yourself up off the floor and, as you do, note the correct title of the book.
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jackob Ludwig Karl Grimm and Wilhelm Karl Grimm. Reason: Snow White is nearly murdered by a corset and Cinderella’s evil step-sisters engage in self-mutilation.
  • A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. This book is a personal favorite of mine and my daughter, Kamilah. Reason for ban: the perception of some readers that this book promotes violence and disrespect. We were totally unaware. Somehow we managed to miss these issues.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Although this is a Newberry Medal winner it was banned because the face-off between good and evil was perceived as a bad reflection on religion. Come again, you say?
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Bill Martin Jr. This children’s classic was banned in 2010 by the Texas State Board of Education because a board member confused Bill Martin Jr. with Bill Martin, author of Biblical Marxism: The Categorical Imperatives of Liberation. Politics and religion: again.
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Reason: profanity and mortality. It’s my understanding that no one gets out of life alive.

Graduating from elementary to middle and high school, banned books include:

  • The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank. It was banned by a Virginia school district in 2010 after teachers began using the unedited version. Frank’s father removed passages from the original publication which first appeared in the Netherlands in 1947. They were reinstated in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.
  • Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. It was banned in New Hampshire for violating a policy which prohibits discussions on homosexuality and alternative life styles. Viola, the heroine, disguises herself as a boy and falls in love with a man. Does the shoe fit or is the directive an example of splitting hairs?
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. A member of Kern County, CA’s board of supervisors was infuriated by what he considered Steinbeck’s unflattering depiction of the county’s residents.

The emphasis on religious viewpoints provides a fascinating counterpoint. The Bible is filled with sex, violence, adultery, abuse, explicit sex – anything one could find in a secular book…but I digress… Various editions of the dictionary have been banned from libraries for including sexual definitions, duh!!!! Lest you feel complacent because your genre of choice hasn’t been mentioned, rest assured, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has you covered. Stephen King has three novels on the frequently challenged books by decade list:

Spend time perusing their site. Notice the titles which show up decade after decade. Check out the ones made into movies. While a good film can be entertaining, nothing beats curling up with an engrossing saga. If those who ban books had their way, this pleasure would be illegal.

I read aloud a passage from Claude Brown Junior’s coming-of-age autobiography of an African American boy, Manchild in the Promised Land. Published in 1965, I read it in high school and loved it. I could certainly relate to it. It was banned – unbeknownst to me – for offensive language and violence. Why? Recounting the story of his childhood and adolescence in Harlem during the mid-Twentieth century, Brown’s unglamorous and disquieting cautionary tale is as relevant today as it was nearly fifty years ago. One has only to think of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and countless other Black males, both youths and adults, to recognize the continuing epidemic of senseless systemic abuse and violent death.

Restricting and/or denying access to books because one person’s perspective is unsettling, affective, painful, or unacceptable does nothing to alter, alleviate, or eliminate the negative, unhealthy, racist, sexist, or unproductive situations afflicting our globally interconnected world. Powerfully written novels, exposés, biographies, and autobiographies often serve as catalysts for change. Those who work to suppress what they find unacceptable, frightening, disagreeable, or uncomfortable hurt everyone: nobody is excluded.

Scribes, inditers, belletrists, novelists, short story writers – craft works capable of turning society on its head, generating indignation over the unflinching honesty of your prose. Write to edify, entertain, inform, affect, afflict, uplift, or challenge. Piss somebody off and do it authentically. Use your gifts and talents to champion a worthwhile cause: the freedom to read your creations and mine.

Originally published on www.afterwriterdreams.com.

©November 2014 by Theresa W. Bennett-Wilkes. All rights reserved.

Theresa Bennett-Wilkes
Literary writing is my passion. When I put pen to paper, I am in my element and life is good. Theresa Bennett Wilkes

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