Banning books is crude, pointless, and alive and well


Image: istockphoto

I read The Bluest Eye many years ago. It was a painful, uncomfortable read. The story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove is haunting and raw. A little black girl living in Ohio in 1941, Pecola is a victim of rape and incest, and her life is corroded by low self-esteem and racial self-loathing. This child prays for her eyes to turn blue so that people will look at her as truly beautiful – by mirroring the dominant image of acceptable beauty.

The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, is still very applicable when Gabrielle Douglas can become the first black woman to win Olympic gold in the gymnastics individual all-around, and yet watch her success derailed with criticism of messy and unkempt hair.

A thoughtful and stimulating read, The Bluest Eye is still intense. Not a book that I was tempted to re-read until the Ohio Board of Education President called for it to be removed from the state’s suggested reading list for high school students.

In a one-two punch, the challenge to Morrison’s novel was quickly followed by an outright ban of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Claiming this literary classic lacked “value,” school leaders in Randolph County, North Carolina, banished Invisible Man from school libraries.

These recent attacks on highly-acclaimed novels – adding to a long and sordid tradition of assaults on black literature – preceded Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual reminder that censorship is alive and kicking.

Most people don’t consider it censorship when they attempt to rid a school library or scrub a reading list of material that they think is profane or immoral. But while parents have considerable rights to direct their own child’s education, they have no right to impose their judgments and preferences on other students and their families.

Banning books and limiting access to reading material based on individual sensitivities and concerns restricts the world of knowledge available to all students. Some parents eliminate material depicting violence, others object to references to sexuality, others to racially-laden speech or images. Some parents oppose having their children exposed to fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending, teach a moral lesson, or provide noble role models.

Eventually, that world gets smaller and smaller. And the curriculum narrows to what can fit through a straw: only the least controversial and probably least relevant material. Material that fails to address students’ real concerns, satisfy their curiosity, or prepare them for life.

In Places I Never Meant To Be, author Judy Blume, a common target of book bans and challenges, collected essays from writers who have experienced the harms of censorship.

Julius Lester’s young adult novel, When Dad Killed Mom, tells the story of domestic violence from a child’s perspective. Censorship, he observed, “is an attitude of mistrust and suspicion that seeks to deprive the human experience of mystery and complexity. But without mystery and complexity, there is no wonder; there is no awe; there is no laughter.” There is no curiosity; there is no honest exchange of views; the intellectual environment is chilled.

Hoping to head off that possibility, Evan Smith Rakoff, a former resident of Randolph County and editor at Poets & Writers magazine, stepped forward. Working with the publisher of Invisible Man, he arranged for free copies of the book to be distributed to students starting today.

With the backdrop of national media attention, and in an ironic turn of events, banning a book might just be the perfect way to get kids reading it.