Issue 110, Summer 2009

Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Book Award Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and most other awards that can be bestowed on a writer. She’s also a much-censored author.

Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon have been challenged in dozens of schools around the country, and banned from classrooms and school libraries on numerous occasions. In one case, her books were investigated by law enforcement officials who received a complaint that they were obscene and “harmful to minors.”

Morrison is not the only target of censorship in high schools. Indeed, in a troubling trend, censorship is creeping up the age ladder and affecting students who are or will soon be adults. In the recent past, challenged books have included: Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy; Tony Kushner’s Angels in America; Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God; Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut; and Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen. And this list doesn’t include classics that are perennially challenged, like Huck Finn and Of Mice and Men.

At the June 3, 2009 launch of NCAC’s Free Speech Leadership Council, Morrison conversed with author Fran Lebowitz about the history of censorship, its motivations, and its consequences. The event also celebrated the publication of Burn this Book, a collection of essays on censorship that Morrison edited. It all started with Adam and Eve tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, says Morrison. For this sin, they were cast out of Eden. The message was: “Knowledge is bad, it is sinful, it will corrupt you.” At the same time, she observed, knowledge is “the route out of any oppression, any limitation.” Slaves once risked their lives to learn to read. “You have to read, you have to know, you have to have access to knowledge.” No wonder one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes is to censor their critics.

Yet, even in our developed democracy, censorship disputes reveal fear of knowledge and where it will lead: fear that sexual knowledge will corrupt youth, or fear that acknowledging the reality of racial hatred and sexual violence will be too painful and disturbing. So people opt for narratives that provide “false comfort and fake innocence,” in Morrison’s words. This comes at great cost, however, as she observes: “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that … only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination…. Art is a way to mourn, art is a way to know, art is a way to be in the world, art is a way to remain human.”

Fear leads to repression, which spreads unless countered: by parents defending their children’s ability to have wide-ranging access to ideas; by teachers and school administrators defending the freedom to read; by religious leaders defending the freedom to think for oneself; by elected officials defending the role of education in representative democracy; and by the media defending the First Amendment, the source of press freedoms. As Morrison sums it up, “a writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind. They are its necessity.”