I’ve been banning books from my daughter’s library since before she was born.
I always encourage family and friends to fill our bookshelves with preschool favorites, and yet I can make certain books disappear in a moment, sometimes to Goodwill, sometimes to the dumpster. Baby Bibles with pink cherub-cheeked Eves and button-nose Noahs. Fairy tales featuring Disney princesses who always need saving. When I’m in a bind, I’ve learned how to redact the troubling scenes of death and loss from bedtime stories so that my 3 year old can sleep better at night.
I’ve always considered myself a champion of creative freedoms. (I still remember how hurt I was in high school when my Stephen King and Anne Rice books began to sprout legs and walk because my mother believed that I was “dabbling in the occult.”) I celebrate Banned Books Week and I often include these controversial texts in my university courses. As my daughter grows, I want to teach her how to become responsible for her own reading choices and ultimately, no book will be off-limits. So, perhaps then, the books I’ve donated to Goodwill aren’t really banned books, they’re not now books.
Consider: when my daughter was only months old, I read Dr. Suess’s My Many Colored Days half a dozen times before I decided that any book that characterizes black days as a wolf, “Mad. And loud” and brown days as a bear, “slow and low, low down” was not right for a little black girl with golden brown skin and many “colored” days before her. One day, she may want to pick up this book. Okay, fine. But not now. Let’s read about eggs that are green or The Lorax, once banned for promoting negative views of the logging industry. (Seriously!)
Being able to make these choices is a form of freedom that I cherish as a parent and a teacher. I’d hate to think that I might be aligning myself with book burners who insist that Harry Potter advocates devil worship or that comic books lead to juvenile delinquency. Nevertheless, as Uncle Ben once warned Spidey, with great power... you know how it goes.
It is with this mindset that I encountered the news about a school board in Michigan that recently pulled Toni Morrison’s novel, Song of Solomon, from a high school AP English class reading list.
It bothered me that Morrison’s book had been being singled out for criticism of its so-called “profanity, sexual references and violence” and how dare they ban one of our President’s favorite books! But I also wondered if the decision was motivated by people who determined that Song of Solomon was a not now book. According to the local newspaper, Morrison’s book would still be available for students in the school library, just not required reading in the classroom. Other books noted in the debate were Walker’s The Color Purple and Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. The school board has since lifted the ban, but not without revealing the philosophical divide within their community.
Race is almost certainly a factor here. I know very little about the Michigan high school system that pulled Morrison’s novel, but I do know that stories about black American experiences are often singled out for reasons that go unacknowledged. The forthright portrayal (and critique) of violence and misogyny coupled with explorations of race and racism makes white and black readers uneasy. These are conversations that many of us are unwilling to have as adults.
On the other hand, I’m always a bit disturbed by college students in my African-American literature course who tell me that they were taught The Bluest Eye in their younger years before they could fully grasp the novel’s complex messages. Should Morrison’s writing be allowed unquestioned access to all ages, simply because she’s the greatest living American author today and a Nobel Prize winner? Ironically, Morrison’s latest publication, Burn this Book, is a collection of essays by prominent writers about literary censorship. Her essay speaks eloquently about the value of literature for our cultural health and well-being. But I think even she would agree that there are other ways – and other books – that are better suited for young minds to explore issues of black self-love, gendered identity, whiteness, and history until they are ready for her unflinching narratives.
(Ugh, I just don’t know… Even as I write this, I remember how grateful I am to my grandmother for allowing me and Frieda to read The Color Purple when no one else would. It opened our eyes to a reality we had never confronted before and I think we are both the better for it.)
Is creative freedom about the right of expression or access? The American Library Association argues for both, stating that “intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.” But I am not as clear on how these ideals should apply to young people, especially children who are not yet equipped with the decision-making tools to exercise their liberties. Shouldn’t parental and teacher discretion be an important part of this freedom too?
Perhaps you disagree. Is there a better way to approach the issue? I’d love to continue the conversation.