Reflections on Banned Books Week 2000

Ever since the invention of the printing press in 1456, books have been banned, restricted, removed, censored or challenged for various reasons. Dante's The Divine Comedy was burned in 1497 on religious grounds. Martin Luther's translation of the Bible was burned in 1624 by Papal authorities. Queen Elizabeth censored parts of Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Richard II in 1597. Today, the focus of book censorship is that which is considered by some to be "sexually explicit," for using "offensive language," or for being "unsuited for age group."

Everywhere we turn, censorship rears its ugly head. Music CDs have parental warning stickers (see our legislative report for information about the most recent labeling bill in the NJ legislature), movies and television have rating systems, and parents, libraries and members of Congress seek to censor the Internet.

The ACLU is committed to bringing attention to the problem of censorship by celebrating Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week was started in 1982 by the American Library Association and the American Booksellers Association. Each year, ACLU affiliates across the country hold book readings, discussions, bon fires and other events to call attention to the ongoing assaults on literature and expression.

This year, the ACLU-NJ hosted book readings in Camden, Newark and Montclair. The programs were called The Banned Brilliance of African American Authors and we invited local community leaders, writers, students and educators to choose readings by African American authors that have been banned or challenged in public libraries or schools. As those who attended know, the events featured some incredibly talented readers who brought literature to life.

The readings provided a great opportunity for people to learn about what kind of literature is the target of censorship. We had selections from Maya Angelou censored for descriptions of the rape of the author, readings from Ralph David Abernathy censored for passages that described violent behavior and infidelity by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and a passage from Richard Wright censored for its "corruptive, obscene nature."

At each event we had a local journalist moderating: Acel Moore of the Philadelphia Inquirer in Camden, Christopher King of News 12 New Jersey in Newark, and Esther Pierre of News 12 New Jersey in Montclair. These exceptional individuals provided information about instances in which readings had been banned or challenged and lead us in discussion of the role that censorship has played in American history, particularly in the context of racial oppression.

We also learned about some of the literature most often censored in recent years. The most frequently challenged books are usually extremely popular (which is certainly the case with the #1 most censored book of 1999, Harry Potter, targeted because of complaints of descriptions of witchcraft and wizardry), or even classics that enjoy a wide readership. Over one-third of the titles on the Modern Library list of the 100 best novels of the 20th Century, including six of the top ten, have been removed or threatened with removal from bookstores, libraries and schools at some point. During the 1990s, the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked almost 6000 challenges to materials in schools, school libraries and public libraries.

For me, Banned Books Week 2000 had many highlights. I loved listening to the readings and was impressed to discover activists in our communities who have wonderful ability to eloquently lift the words from the pages, despite the fact that reading literature in front of people is not a usual activity in their lives. It was especially exciting to have the participation of young readers who brought great energy and freshness to readings like Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou and selections from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. Their participation showed us how literature can bridge cultures and generations.

In addition, we had terrific discussions at the events. In Newark, Christopher King moderated a fascinating conversation about the role of sex abuse and rape in oppression and how censorship of such expression perpetuates that oppression. In that context, we also touched on the troubling trend of passage of laws that target sex offenders, but don't really address the problem of sex abuse. In Newark we discussed the bombardment of commercial expression in our society and the struggle of parents to control the images to which their children are exposed. While this struggle presents a tremendous challenge to parents, most want to keep the decision making in the family and recognize that it's not the government's role to decide what is or isn't appropriate for their children.

I would like to thank the following talented and thoughtful people for participating as readers in our programs: Roz Carter, Ricardo Rose, Zawdie Abdul-Malik, Freda Pritchett, Rosemary Jackson, Keith Walker, Joyce Kurzweil, Michael McPhearson, David Harris, Assemblywoman Nia Gill, Larry Hamm, Abimola Okeowo, Bernard Freamon, Chuck Jones, DeLacy Davis, Christy Davis, Fredrica Bey, Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Vanessa Charles, Devika Bakhshi and Dorothea M. Moore. In addition, we are grateful to Larry Miles for hosting our Camden reading at LaUnique Cultural Center, to Margot Sage-EL for hosting our Montclair reading at Watchung Books, and to Fredrica Bey and the Women in Support of the Million Man March for hosting our Newark reading.

-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director

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