This week is Banned Book Week, which, according to the American Library Association, “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.”
Despite freedom of expression being clearly provided for in the Bill of Rights, our country has a glorious history of censorship, book burning, and attempts to squelch books and speech on such inflammatory topics as racism (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man, Beloved, Color Purple), poverty (Grapes of Wrath), sex (The Great Gatsby,), communism (1984), religion that is not strictly Jesus-approved (Lord of the Rings, Satanic Verses, Slaughterhouse Five), and the importance of an education (Barack Obama, September 2009) to name just a few of my favorites.
In more recent history, I
despaired of my fellow citizens was miffed to find that The Kite Runner has been considered controversial and in some cases has been banned due to the two separate and admittedly horrific scenes of sexual violence against two of the main characters.
Do not think for a minute that I did not find the images of rape and humiliation in this book disturbing. But in a book whose point is, arguably, to bring light to how involving a small, primarily tribal nation in a Cold War tug-of-war allowed this type of violence to happen, isn’t that appropriate? Shouldn’t we all be uncomfortable that, forty years later, Afghanistan is still destabilized, still a war zone, and still incalculably impoverished? Personally, I think if a few more Americans were aware of just how much Afghan blood was on our collective hands before September 11 even occurred, it might change their perception of current events. But there I go rocking the boat again.
I was allowed to read many accounts of rape throughout my time in school, but of course these stories all involved the rape of a woman. The two characters attacked in The Kite Runner are Afghan boys, which leads me to believe that the real issue some people have with The Kite Runner is not the sexually-explicit language (author Kaled Hosseini is extremely, masterfully delicate in describing exactly what happened without using vulgarity) but the uncomfortable questions of race and sexuality that the story evokes.
And of course, this is true with other banned books on the list. Was Grapes of Wrath really banned for language or because it challenged the practices of fruit growers in Southern California, whose business model was (and still is) based on workers who are not paid a living wage. Do you really believe To Kill a Mockingbird was banned because it used the words “whore lady,” or was its hard look at the role of race in US courts a little too truthful some?
In the end, I am sure there will come a time when I’m uncomfortable with a book, movie, or web site to which my children are exposed. It’s inevitable in this age of media saturation. But I look forward to that time as a teachable moment, an opportunity for dialogue, not a time to get the fire pit raging out back so I can burn me some books. I hope my children’s teachers will too.