Want to Build a Wise, Engaged Citizenry? Read Banned Books in Schools, Especially by Authors of Color

Sep 30, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's words would have made her a literary giant no matter what, but her position as one of our country's 'most-banned' authors gives her an arguably more important distinction: as a teacher of a progressive and critical citizenry. Take a look at this sample of banned Morrison books and you'll notice a pattern:

  • Beloved” has been challenged in many places across the United States. Challenges cite violence, sexual content, bestiality and racism as reasons for removing the Pulitzer Prize-winning work from curricula.
  • Song of Solomon” was banned from (then reinstated in) the curriculum of a public high school in Michigan on social and sexual grounds.
  • Sula” has been banned for its sexual themes.
  • The Bluest Eye” has consistently landed on the list of most challenged books, cited reasons including, sexually explicit material, graphic descriptions, disturbing language and an underlying socialist-communist agenda.
  • Paradise” was banned from the libraries of Texas prisons. The reason cited for banning was that it, “Contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve a breakdown.”

But Toni Morrison is not alone. Right now, activists are fighting to allow Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” back into the libraries of Michigan prisons. Works by Richard Wright and Maya Angelou have had their legitimacy questioned and their places on the shelves of public institutions challenged. And a school district in Arizona recently banned its entire Mexican-American Studies Program and the book “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years.”

Book Banning Isn't A New Kind of Censorship

Book banning is a century-old tool of colonial control and an extension of the broader policing of language and expression of groups that colonial powers wish to subjugate. 

Enslaved Africans in the Americas who shared a native language were separated from each other in order to limit covert communication. And while speaking English was forced, daring to learn to read it was a crime. The Hawaiian language was banned from all public instruction by the colonial government, as were the languages of thousands of American Indian children removed from their communities and “educated” at government-funded, missionary-run boarding schools. 

In a society where African American, Native American and Latinx children are under-resourced in education, underrepresented in professional life and over-incarcerated, we can’t dismiss as coincidence the degree to which book banning and the criminalization of language have played out in schools and prisons—helping to maintain a well-oiled pipeline. Writings that reveal the truth about institutions to the very people who are intentionally disregarded or marginalized by those institutions are a threat to the status quo.

[pullquote position="right"]If we want to dismantle the structures of oppression, let’s start with a well-curated collection of banned and challenged books.[/pullquote] Show me a member of society who has read “The Bluest Eye,” and I’ll show you someone who knows the power of representation and has better things to do than hate-tweet about Halle Bailey being cast in “The Little Mermaid.”

Maybe more works by Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in the hands of students would mean a society quicker to spot the demonization of immigrants of color, more awake at the wheel as women’s bodily autonomy is challenged and better equipped to understand that telescopes and oil pipelines are even more effective as tools against sovereignty than they are as tools for science and energy. 

[pullquote]It's not a coincidence that books written by authors of color are often found among the list of challenged and banned books.[/pullquote] It's an effective tool of oppression. Governments and public institutions have long understood the power of censorship. Controlling the narrative and regulating the language by which that narrative is discussed is central to upholding patriarchal, White supremacy—First Amendment be damned. 

Engaging with these texts, not just in spite of the objections but perhaps because of them, will open a window to a more meaningful understanding of the human condition. 

In her Nobel lecture, Toni Morrison asked, “... [W]ho does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate?” Reading from the strikingly long list of literature deemed unfit can foster critical thinking and empower young people to be critical examiners and not passive recipients of what is delivered to them as truth.

KJ Ward

KJ Ward is the former director of Boston GLASS, a supportive-services center for LGBTQ youth, and a former commissioner on the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. Today, KJ is an independent editor, writer, and education consultant. He is also the co-creator of "Born and Raised" and  lgbtqbrats.com, a media project featuring the multi-decade reflections of LGBTQ adults who grew up in military communities.

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