September 21-27 is Banned Books Week in the United States. Wait a minute, I hear you say, how can book be banned in the country whose Bill of Rights is held up as a model for the rest of the world? Many Americans ask that same question.
The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Only three little words in that very-long sentence apply here (and no, I won’t be commenting upon other pieces of this amendment in this post, although there is much that could be said): freedom of speech. And, to be fair, I don’t think Congress has ever banned a book or passed a law that would ban a book. In most cases, books seem to be banned by school administrators or removed from curricula or library shelves for a variety of reasons ranging from obscenity to sexual content to social issues that they’d rather not address with their students.
All of that might seem reasonable, if not for the books in question. I could almost, almost understand To Kill a Mockingbird being controversial when it was first published in 1960. It talks about racism and justice in ways that were considered groundbreaking on one side of the equality movement and heretical on the other. But when I started poking around yesterday, I learned from the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books list that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned as recently as 2011 for containing “racism.”
There are so many other books I could mention here from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being banned for “homosexual content” and questionable religious content (apparently folks have missed the freedom of religion clause in addition to freedom of speech) to Judy Blume’s books being banned for honest portrayals of adolescent sexuality, to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison being banned for some of the same misguided reasons as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But there’s actually a great list of banned books on Banned Books Week’s site.
But I just keep going back to banning the too-few books that actually try to talk about race for containing “racism.” There’s a huge movement underway to increase the diversity in the publishing industry. That diversity extends beyond racial diversity to include diversity in sexual orientation and also characters who have disabilities. It began as a reaction to the announcement of an all-white, all-male panel as part of BEA’s BookCon this past spring, but #WeNeedDiverseBooks has spread beyond that, in part because of the increasing tension in the United States over marriage equality and police violence against black Americans and elsewhere over similar issues.
Diversity in YA put together a great post about how banning books squelches this diversity because the majority of banned books are ones that are written by minorities or written about them. And heaven forbid minorities speak out about this issue. When UK’s children’s laureate Malorie Blackman did so, bigots heaped abuse and threats on her for speaking up. In a society when we’re already marginalizing so many people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic group, can we really afford to continue banning books that speak for these very people?
The answer is no. We cannot. Ultimately, diversity in publishing is not a matter just for writers or publishers to address. The works of art that we as a society produce reflect our hopes, our beliefs, and our identities as individuals and as a nation. Likewise the works of art that we choose to censor reflect our fears and our tight-as-ever grip on status quo.