Banned Books Week illuminates freedom to read

BannedBooks_RebeccaKanaskie2EDITEDBy Abby Wargo


What do Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, and Khaled Hosseini have in common? They are all authors of books that have been censored.

These so-called “banned books” often contain controversial ideas and situations that are deemed “inappropriate” for younger readers, like LGBTQ representation, political viewpoints, violence, profanity, and sexually explicit material.

Banned Books Week is an initiative which occurs every September that encourages schools, libraries, bookstores, and museums worldwide to celebrate texts of all kinds: books, plays, art, comics, journalism, etc. This year’s theme was “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark.”

From Sept. 22-28, Miller Library curated a Banned Books display that invited students to check out and read the library’s collection of banned books, take selfies with their favorite challenged text, send a postcard to a challenged author, or simply relax and color pictures speaking out against censorship.

Director of Public Services Amanda Darby said that WC’s Banned Books Week went well.

“We saw a lot of students, faculty, and prospective students and families engaging with our display — books were checked out, stickers, and postcards were taken, and even some selfies were snapped,” Darby said.

At its core, Banned Books Week celebrates “the freedom to access ideas, a fundamental right that belongs to everyone and over which no one person or small group of people should sway,” according to the Banned Books Week handbook.

The week was created by the Banned Books Week Coalition, who “take direct action to prevent censorship by writing letters of support, providing resources for the defense of challenged materials, developing proactive and preventive tools for individuals on the front lines, and even taking legal action when the occasion calls for it,” according to the handbook.

Banned Books Week is supported by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech and a free press.

“Censorship affects what ideas can be told, what ideas get transmitted, and what points of view are given light, and those readers and those ideas that deviate with perceived cultural or religious or social morays can definitely feel marginalized. It is important not to silence voices, but at the same time be aware of the difference between literature and obscenity,” said Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor, associate professor of English and director of the gender studies program.

Books are often challenged “in public or school libraries where parents do not feel as if children should have access to ‘inappropriate’ material, which is usually coded language for LGBTQ+ content, body-positive or sex-positive content, religious diversity, and topics along these lines. But it is not just that these book challengers feel as if only their own child should not have access, they believe that no one’s children, or that no one in the community, should have access,” Darby said.

Books are not the only materials that can be banned. Censorship has a long history, and its influence still affects the accessibility of controversial materials today.

Dr. Alicia Kozma, assistant professor of communications and media studies, said, “In the United States, cinema was not protected under the First Amendment until the late 1960s, so censorship in U.S. cinema before that was rampant. Films could be censored by local, state, and federal censorship boards; police forces; religious groups; community organizations — anyone, really. Some individual theater owners used to physically cut scene out of a celluloid film reel if they did not think they should be shown. The industrial development of movies began in earnest in 1895, and by 1896 films were being banned. The history of film is really a history of censorship.”

Censorship affects learning at every level, and Washington College is not exempt.

Dr. Kozma uses course materials that have been considered banned “all the time.”

She said teaching controversial texts is “absolutely” important.

“In my film classes as well as in CMS 101 we read, watch, and talk about controversial texts. Censored texts tell us a number of things about the culture which censored them and the values they held. More often than not, texts ‘controversial’ are labeled as such because they challenge the norm,” Dr. Kozma said. “Whether it is books that address U.S. race relations head on like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” or Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” or a film like Frederick Wiseman’s “Tititcut Follies,” which was banned in 1967 because it exposed how badly the Commonwealth of Massachusetts treated institutionalized people’s, controversial texts challenge the existing power structures that oppress and suppress. For that, they are of the utmost importance.”

Just because a material is or has been censored, does not mean it should not be avoided; if anything, that makes it more worth a reader’s time.

“I think it’s very important not to avoid material that is censored,” Dr. O’Connor said. “My area of specialization is Modernism, and many of the most important works of that period — James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” [Radclyffe Hall’s] “The Well of Loneliness”, D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” — were all censored at one point. Many of the things that are deemed as obscene or are censored when these works are first published are dealing with important issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and it is really important that these works reach the public.”

Dr. Kozma said, “Avoiding conversations around censorship, or avoiding controversial materials, is a terrible detriment to students. In 2019 many people think censorship is a thing of the past but it is something that affects us every day, and it is critical that students today understand the history of censorship in the United States because it directly impacts the culture they have access to, the ideas they can interact with, and the stories they are told.”

Darby said that everyone can help promote challenged texts. She encourages people to becoming involved with local libraries, writer letters to editors, and check out challenged books.

“Read banned literature and make your own decisions about it,” Darby said.

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