Censorship and Invisibility: A Boomer Perspective

Over the past few years, hundreds of libraries, bookstores, and community organizations have designed increasingly inventive displays, Read-Outs, and other activities showcasing this annual celebration of the freedom to read.
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September 22-28 is Banned Books Week, and oh, how it has grown since 1982!

Over the past few years, hundreds of libraries, bookstores, and community organizations have designed increasingly inventive displays, Read-Outs, and other activities showcasing this annual celebration of the freedom to read. In 2010, volunteers with the Iowa City Public Library marched in the University of Iowa Homecoming Parade dressed as characters from their favorite banned books. In 2011, the Gadsden Public Library director was "arrested" and put on trial for allowing controversial books in the library--with local teens acting as attorneys and jury, and a local judge explaining the importance of the First Amendment. In 2012, the Lawrence, Kan., Public Library invited local artists to create Banned Books Trading Cards, which proved wildly popular; this year both the Lawrence Public Library and the Chapel Hill, NC, Public Library are offering Banned Books trading cards in observance of Banned Books Week.

This year, we're seeing a Banned Books Week dance performance at Muhlenberg College (Pa.), Twitter parties, a Google Hangout with Sherman Alexie, a "BBQ&A" in Austin, Texas. In Indianapolis, a local author will be living in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library behind a storefront featuring a wall of banned and challenged books. And readers from across the United States and around the world will demonstrate their support for free speech by participating in a Virtual Read-Out on YouTube where participants will read from their favorite banned books. To date, more than 1,500 videos have been submitted since the Virtual Read-Out began in 2011, including many by bestselling authors and celebrities such as Sherman Alexie, Laurie Halse Anderson, Khaled Hosseini, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher, Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Myracle and many others.

In addition, youth enthusiasm and commitment to free speech ideals should encourage and inspire anti-censorship advocates everywhere. This year, the Illinois Library Association will award the students at Chicago's Lane Tech High School for helping to keep Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" in the Chicago Public Schools' curriculum--and for their 451 Book Club, named in honor of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." These students read and discuss books--they don't need to be protected from them. These students will be better prepared for college and the workplace because they have read powerful, important books that perhaps make them uncomfortable, but that inform them about unfamiliar cultures and ideas and help them empathize with people around the country--and the world. (And somehow, they have survived this encounter!)

Yet while we celebrate the deluge of Banned Books library programming around the world, an upsurge in the censorship of literary classics has challenged the freedom to read. Librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, civil liberties groups, and community members watch in horror as these classics are removed from the hands of young people who, now more than ever, need to be informed, global citizens: "To Kill a Mockingbird." "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved." "Dreaming in Cuban." When Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" was removed this week from a North Carolina school district, it struck a particular chord within this boomer librarian. Enough is enough.

During the 1960s, I was an undergraduate English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The course catalog advertised a new class called "African-American Literature," taught by the great Professor Keneth Kinnamon. If you can believe it, I had never heard of a course like this before! But in Professor Kinnamon's course we were exposed to a wide range of African American writers, including George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay and (then named) LeRoi Jones. Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" made a particular impression upon me, as Professor Kinnamon emphasized that marginalized groups of people often feel insignificant and invisible. I hope that this theme--which at the time was new to this Midwestern small town girl--now seems obvious and outdated.

Over the years I have thought about what it would have been like to have access to these books in junior high and high school. My high school had a large Mexican-American student body, yet there were no books or history lessons about their experience. Indeed, they were "invisible" to many of us. It has only been at recent high school reunions that my former classmates and I finally talked frankly about this tragic missed opportunity. Happily, today's students have Tony Diaz's Librotraficante movement to insure that books about the Latino experience are available in their schools.

In addition, students in high school can now read about the experiences of Native Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, women and GLBTQ people. They have a window onto the experiences of their fellow students, neighbors, workers--as well as onto themselves.

This window may be painful for some parents, particularly those who want to shield their children from the injustices of the past. Yet it is precisely these past injustices that gave root to contemporary injustices; in order to be informed participants in contemporary society, we need to confront and engage with the past. Toni Morrison has written about this. While she abhors the "n" word, she does not want to see books being banned because of it.

I am deeply concerned about the current deluge of removals of classic books from the American literary canon. I thought that, as a society, we had reached a consensus that the literary canon should represent diverse segments of U.S. society. Multicultural literary works are not being included because of some need for "political correctness." They are included because they are excellent and have been acknowledged as such by countless awards for literary merit. Though books that deal with controversial topics may make some readers uncomfortable, such literature offers a vehicle for true learning and understanding.

I believe that increased attention to educational standards such as Common Core and politically motivated scrutiny is the cause for these calls for censorship. It is great that people care about and pay attention to what students are reading. On the other hand, it is alarming that they do not respect 1) those families that may want their children to read the book; 2) the expectations that students entering college will have already encountered these classic books in high school; and 3) the experience and expertise of the librarians, teachers, and other specialists who recommended these books for the curriculum in the first place.

During Banned Books Week it is time for us to stop and think. To stop and discuss. Not to create barriers to history, or to conversation. Not to force invisibility on anyone in the United States.

If we can't look back to our past, we can't move forward.

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