This week (September 27th-October 3rd, 2020) is Banned Books Week, which is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. This year I am going to focus on books by and about African-Americans that have been challenged or banned because they are often more likely to experience a challenge.
As explained in an American Library Association webpage about diversity and banned/challenged books: “While ‘diversity’ is seldom given as a reason for a challenge, it may in fact be an underlying and unspoken factor: the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider. Often, content addresses concerns of groups who have suffered historic and ongoing discrimination. For instance, a book that often recurs in previous years’ top ten challenges is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. While it has sex in it, and that’s often the complaint, many other books also have sex, and are not challenged. Is the underlying motivation for the challenge racism? Sometimes, it surely is. In other cases, of course, a complaint genuinely may be about precisely what the challenger says it is.”
Here are some examples of titles that we have in our collection that have faced challenges over the years (books are drawn from Banned Books Written by African Americans and Top 10 Banned Books that Changed the Face of Black History).
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. Baldwin’s blunt prose rubbed people in New York and Virginia the wrong way, it appears. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was banned in both states for being “rife with profanity and explicit sex” and including “recurring themes of rape, masturbation, violence and degrading treatment of women.”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. After a parent’s public complaint at a school board meeting, the superintendent of Katy (TX) Independent School District removed the multiple award-winning book from all the school libraries in the district. Teachers and librarians argued against the censorship, which produced overwhelming media uproar. A Katy ISD student circulated a petition gathering over 3,700 signatures to urge reinstatement of the book. The Superintendent held firm in his claim that the book was pervasively vulgar and he was legally right to censor the book. Three months later the critically acclaimed novel about a black teen dealing with the aftermath of witnessing a police shooting that killed her unarmed friend was returned to the district’s high school libraries, available to students only with parental consent.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Challenged as a summer reading assignment in the Knoxville (TN) high school system because a parent claimed the nonfiction book “has too much graphic information.” Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells – taken without her knowledge in 1951 – became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Banned in North Carolina prisons in February 2017 because it was considered “likely to provoke confrontation between racial groups.” The book was later removed from the list of prohibited books after the American Civil Liberties Union sent NC Department of Public Safety officials a public letter in 2018.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Though Time Magazine included the novel on its list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1923, not every English-language reader agrees. In 1997, parents in Brentsville, Virginia attempted to ban the novel from the Advanced English curriculum for “sexual explicitness.” Thankfully, the ban was overturned.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Winner of the National Book Award and ranked nineteenth on Modern Library’s list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man has nonetheless been challenged for its lack of “literary value.” In 2013, NCAC sent a letter to Randolph County Public Schools in North Carolina after they banned the book because of a complaint that it “is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers.” Ten days after the original ban, the board held a special meeting to reconsider their actions and voted 6-1 to return the book. One member of the board expressed his shift after considering his son’s military career: “He was fighting for these rights. I’m casting a vote to take them away. Is it right of me? No.” Such reflections would even give the Invisible Man reason to step into the light of day.