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Understanding Ourselves and Others: What We Lose With Book Bans

School districts and libraries across the country are removing books. Censorship is not new, but the current wave reflects social divisions, says Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin.

A stack of banned books at the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis.
(Christine Tannous/IndyStar)
Across the country, schools are removing books from classrooms and libraries are pulling them from the shelves. In many instances, educators are facing pressure from lawmakers threatening to cut funding if they don’t delete long lists of books, including many considered classics.

“Banning books is a threat to democracy,” says Farah Jasmine Griffin, an English professor who directs the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. “A society where it's OK to ban a book is a society on its way to authoritarianism.”

Griffin is the author of the recent book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. Governing spoke with her about why Black literature is essential to understanding the nation and what’s behind the current wave of book bans. Edited excerpts follow:

Governing: Over the weekend, I overheard a man in a bookstore saying, “There’s a district in Texas that’s banning pretty much every book I’ve ever taught.” Censorship is not new, but what do you think’s driving so much activity at this moment?

Griffin: I think it's because of the moment that we're in. We're in one of the most divisive moments in our history. So much of the banning of these books has very little to do with the books themselves and everything to do with the exact same fault lines that are dividing us as a nation — issues of race and sexuality and ethnicity and gender identity.

I think one of the ironies of this book-banning moment is that it comes at or right after a time when people were actually reading. Think about the early days after George Floyd's murder, how much people were reading. And so I keep thinking maybe that feels threatening to some people, that so many Americans actually do want to understand and do want to read and have access to ideas and history.

Governing: Do book bans backfire? Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, was pulled by one Tennessee school district and now it’s back on the bestseller lists. A comic book store owner in California has offered to send it free to students in that district.

Griffin: I'm very happy to see that Maus was doing so well, or that (Toni Morrison’s novel) Beloved was doing so well. All those purchases don’t mean that people are reading those books, however. People are just like, “I'm going to buy the book and support the book because it's being banned.” I think that we have not yet reached the point where that censorship is making those books completely unavailable, but it's a slippery slope.

In the moment, censorship can make people go out and support and buy the books, but those are people who were going to read it anyway. Those aren't potential readers from whom you are keeping it. Beginning to ban a book, you know, is a first step toward making that book unavailable, and we shouldn't be a society that tolerates banning books. You don't have to read it if you don't want to read it. But you shouldn't not be reading it because it is no longer available to you.

People will say, “Oh, I never heard of David Walker’s (anti-slavery) Appeal of 1830. And why am I just learning about it?” Well, during its time, it was banned. It was burned. People could be arrested for having it on them. There was a kind of tradition of reading works by Black writers and Black activists that kept it alive. But those (censorship) efforts partly worked, because most Americans had never heard of those writings.
A person reads the graphic novel "Maus" by Art Spiegelman. A school board in Tennessee has added to a surge in book bans by conservatives with an order to remove the award-winning 1986 graphic novel on the Holocaust, "Maus," from local student libraries.
(Maro Siranosian/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Governing: You open your latest book by stating that Black literature is necessary to understanding the American experiment with democracy. You wrote a whole book about this, but can you talk about why it’s so essential?

Griffin: It's essential because the books that I write about are American. I mean, they are important to world literature, but it's impossible to really, fully understand the United States and its history without understanding, or having access to, or thinking about what all kinds of people had to say about this experiment. We get an incomplete picture of the nation if we don't have access to those voices.

One of the early writers that I chose to write about is Phillis Wheatley. Here she was, an enslaved girl who felt like she had something to contribute. She wrote a poem to General George Washington, and he read it and wrote her back.

These voices were always there, hoping to give some shape to the nation as it was coming into being. And our understanding of that history is just richer if we attend to those voices – especially, I think, the voices of Black writers who make clear that there are ideals about the nation that it does not always live up to, that it did not live up to, and those voices were trying to push the nation to live up to its stated ideals.

Governing: There have been so many testimonials from people who are Black or gay or Asian or hearing-impaired talking about the importance of finding books as children that represented who they are. Can you talk about why that’s important, and why it’s important for other children to read about different experiences?

Griffin: For generations, Black children, Asian children, gay children, trans children, have all read books that did not center their experience. And still they were able to find elements of those books with which they could identify, because they tapped into something very human. They found something to connect with someone who is very different from them. All children have extraordinary imaginations, and they can find connections even with nonhuman characters, for God's sake. So that's one of the reasons.

But I think that it's important for all children to be able to see themselves represented, to see themselves affirmed, to not have to call into question the importance or significance of who they are because of their absence in books. And at the same time, it's important for all of them to also be able to encounter difference on those pages. And to see that difference doesn't have to be frightening.

You know, I think that parents have every right to determine what they want their children to be exposed to. They don't have every right to determine what everyone's child should be exposed to.

Governing: The people who want books pulled from library shelves or classrooms will often say that they’re not opposed to teaching the history of slavery or the Holocaust, but they’re concerned about profanity or nudity or depictions of sexual violence. Last fall, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation into “the availability of pornography” in public schools. It’s an old argument, where do you draw the line. Can you comment on that?

Griffin: I can guarantee you that a high school senior in an advanced AP class isn't encountering sex for the first time on the pages of Beloved. There is no explicit sex in Morrison's book simply because she's too good a writer. Are there difficult, complicated, hard scenes about sex and sexuality? Yes. But I think that we should be prepared to talk about those things, and students aren't going to be put on a wrong path because they encounter it in a book. Quite the opposite, actually.

I don't know anybody who's teaching Beloved to elementary school children. So first we need to ask, what exactly are we teaching seven-year-olds to read, versus 17-year-olds? I think it's utterly ridiculous to say that you don't want to expose a high school student to language about sexual violence, because they're exposed to that already. One of the things that we do as teachers is to provide context. We teach context, we teach critical thinking and we offer a way into literature.

Governing: Toni Morrison is perhaps the central figure in your book and certainly her books are being banned now, as they have been before. What is it about her work that makes it such a frequent target for censorship?

Griffin: There are a lot of different things. She does make you uncomfortable. Her writing is beautiful. It's complicated, it's very difficult. It confronts, head on, the painful, ugly parts of our history, and forces us to contend with it. And that is discomforting for everyone, even fans. You know, she writes about incest, she writes about the sexual abuse of enslaved women. That's not all she writes about. But she doesn't shy away from those topics.

With both her detractors and in some instances, unfortunately, some of her defenders, it feels like they actually haven't read her at all. She just becomes someone who's recognizable as a great writer, and so her books are most easily identified as being books that we need to ban because she writes about difficult subjects.
Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison.
(Frank Polich/Getty Images/TNS)

Also, I think that a kind of unstated reason is that there may be some resentment of the fact that a Black woman has been situated in a place of such importance in the national literature. There is some resentment over her as a figure, perhaps displacing other great writers in our national canon. I think that's kind of an unspoken criticism. You know, you could read John Donne’s “The Flea,” which is also about sex. I don't think anybody's talking about banning that at all.

She was used to her books being banned. And she recognized that we live in a country that called into question the intellectual merits of Black women. But she wouldn't even acknowledge that. That was a waste of time.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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