Issue 81, Spring 2001

by Joan E. Bertin

We recently received a request for help responding to a proposed policy to ban “racially offensive” books from the high school curriculum. As readers of CN know, Huck Finn is a perennial target for censorship because the word “nigger” repeatedly appears in it. It’s hard to convince some people that this 19th century classic is still important enough to make students encounter this provocative word. So I started looking for contemporary books that had been challenged on similar grounds. In short order, I had found more than 60—and the list was growing.

Some examples: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (instills “bitterness and hatred against whites”), Forrest Gump by Winston Groom (“pokes fun at blacks”), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (contains the word “nigger”) (same for Gone with the Wind), Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (depicts “life in a black ghetto”), Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold (memoir of family picnics “stereotypes” African-Americans), Luis Rodriguez’s Always Running (“stereotyping of Latinos”), Richard Wright’s Black Boy (might “spark hard feelings”), Michael Crichton’s Congo (part of “racially discriminatory practices”), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (“represents institutional racism”).

The research revealed something else: the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books discloses a virtual “who’s who” of African-American and Hispanic authors: Isabel Allende, Rudolfo Anaya, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Walter Dean Myers, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Wilt Chamberlain, Alice Childress, Eldridge Cleaver, James and Christopher Collier, Ralph Ellison, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, Gordon Parks, Piri Thomas, Richard Wright, Jesse Jackson, Carolivia Herron, Luis Rodriguez.

If “racially sensitive” or controversial material were eliminated from high school reading lists and libraries, these are some of the voices that would be silenced. While the proposed policy might avoid some hurt and angry feelings, the students most vulnerable to those feelings would also lose access to literature that speaks to their experience, that offers role models, and that nurtures creativity. The entire community loses if the harsh truths of history and social experiences cannot be shared through literature.

The students whom the proposal would protect are the ones who stand to lose the most from it.