Claudia Johnson is a nationally recognized advocate for free speech and social justice, winner of the inaugural PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, for her “extraordinary efforts to restore banned literary classics to Florida classrooms”—and author of Stifled Laughter: One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1994. Fulcrum Publishing has just released a new edition because the book is “even more relevant today” and they want to “introduce the book to a new generation of readers. And she continues to fight book banning, recently helping reinstate banned books to Virginia Beach classrooms and libraries.
Johnson participated in a written interview with National Coalition Against Censorship and provided the following responses:
Johnson: First, I want to express my gratitude to NCAC for all the guidance, support, and advice I received from Executive Director Leanne Katz while I was fighting book banning in rural north Florida and federal court from 1986 to 1991. And I am grateful to the NCAC’s current Executive Director, Chris Finan, for his beautiful endorsement of the new edition of my memoir Stifled Laughter: One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship—and giving me the opportunity to answer these questions:
NCAC: Did you have any concern about censorship when you moved to rural Florida in the 1980s?
Johnson: Actually, no, because I grew up in university towns while my first-wave feminist mother earned her B.A, M.A., and Ph.D. in history and economics. And I continued to live in university towns while I earned my B.A. in Letters and two M.A.s, the first in English at U.C. Berkeley and a second in Folklore at Indiana University, where I met my husband. So books were always sacred in our family, and I naively assumed other people felt the same way.
Until we moved to Lake City in rural north Florida in 1980, where I went into profound culture shock. As I say in Stifled Laughter, “The first thing I thought of when we drove into Lake City was a line from Adrienne Rich, something about small towns she might have died in. There were days that I thought I was dying. The first question everyone asked was, ‘What’s your home church?’ A neighbor’s overweight husband got down on his knees in my kitchen and witnessed for Christ. The carpenter who built the shelves in my study witnessed, too—he said he was fluent in Old and New Tongues. If I mentioned my work as a playwright, people nodded politely and recommended Jesus. Everywhere I looked people were walking with Jesus, talking with Jesus, taking their troubles to Jesus—our baby-sitter called it ‘kneeology.’ They talked about “wearing Jesus” and that’s what they did, on hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers—JESUS IS LORD IN COLUMBIA COUNTY—IN CASE OF RAPTURE THIS CAR WILL BE UNMANNED. I felt suffocated, the big soft pillow of Jesus pressed down on my face . . . I felt lost, God, I felt lost . . . disconnected, marooned, a secular humorist in a God-fearing town.”
By 1984 my culture shock drove me to drive 180 miles round trip twice a week to Tallahassee while I earned my doctorate in English and Creative Writing at Florida State, where my witty professors restored my perspective again and again and gave me hilarious literary equivalents for Lake City—Dismal Seepage and Boggley Wallah. Then, after I passed my exams in March 1986, I was relaxing by my father’s pool in south Florida when my husband mentioned that a fundamentalist preacher in Lake City, where we lived at the time, wanted the school board to ban the state-approved, high-school humanities textbook because two selections, The Miller’s Tale and Lysistrata—my two favorite classics—promoted, in the preacher’s opinion, women’s lib and pornography.
And this discovery launched my long, passionate fight against censorship in our public schools.
NCAC: Why did you decide to fight?
Johnson: I was shocked and outraged that one offended parent would want to ban these two glorious comedies—and take away other student’s right to read them. This, I believe, is the very heart of it all. Parents who are offended by a book in our public schools have the right to request an alternative book for their children. But they have no right to deny other parents’ children access to the book in question. Because the First Amendment protects students’ right to receive information. But where is it written that we can’t be offended?
As writer and warrior for free speech, Judy Blume, said, “Something will be offensive to someone in every book, so you’ve got to fight it.”
NCAC: What surprised you the most about the opposition you faced?
Johnson: I’ve fought three different book banning battles across three different decades in three different towns brought by three different right-wing book banners. “But one thing was the same,” as I say in the new Introduction to Stifled Laughter, “they did not read the books they were hellbent to ban. They only read excerpts but condemned the whole book as pornography (or “po-nography,” as they said in Lake City), the oldest trick in the Book Banner’s Playbook, which in my long experience looks like this:
1) Choose the book you want to ban.
2) Don’t read the whole book—simply skim the pages for an excerpt about sex. Or pluck one from social media!
3) Take the excerpt out of context.
4) Choose an adjective from the Book Banner’s Thesaurus to describe how the excerpt makes you feel:
5) Then choose an adjective to describe the whole book, even though you haven’t read it:
6) Armed with these two adjectives, fill in the blanks:
“I’m ______________ by (title of the book) because it’s _______________!”
And use this sentence when you . . .
7) File a formal complaint with your local school board and demand the book be removed immediately from the school library and curriculum.
8) Congratulate yourself for protecting everyone’s children, whether said children and their parents like it or not!
But as anyone who reads knows, you can’t judge a book by an excerpt. To do so is an illicit generalization based on too small a sample. And while we’re on the subject, we can go a long way toward nipping book-banning in the proverbial bud by insisting that school boards add to their procedures for challenged controversial materials that no one can challenge a book until they’ve read it in its entirety. Once book-banning wannabes can prove they have done so- perhaps by signing a sworn affidavit or answering a few searching questions prepared by the school’s English teachers or librarians—they may proceed with their challenge. I asked a former member of the Suwannee County School Board (you’ll meet her in Stifled Laughter) if adding this requirement would be possible, and she replied, “I don’t see any reason why school boards couldn’t make reading the whole book part of their policy.”
NCAC: What was the impact on your personal life? Did you have regrets?
Johnson: After the school board in Lake City banned the state-approved humanities textbook because Lysistrata took the Lord’s name in vain—though I tried to point out the Lord in question was Zeus, so Christians need not be offended—I was roundly attacked as “a Berkeley liberal” and “a prostitute” and a “pointy-headed intellectual” (the ‘80s equivalent of “woke”) and invited to leave town. And my husband and I were happy to oblige because we were so sickened by what we’d seen in Lake City—not just the book ban or personal attacks but the fact that almost no one was willing to protest the ban. So we bought thirty-two acres outside nearby Live Oak, where we had wonderful friends and no books had been banned. And we built a lovely cracker-style house—that burned to the ground in a mysterious fire just before we moved in. When the shock had worn off, we decided to rebuild. Then, in 1991, at a neighbor’s end-of-summer volleyball party, I discovered that another fundamentalist parent, Zeke Townsend, had demanded that the Suwannee County School Board ban Of Mice and Men. I thought, Not again, but my husband said, “Now remember, the root word in fundamentalist is fun.” That got me laughing and restored my perspective.
And this time I was smarter,” as I say in my recent guest essay for Publisher’s Weekly, A Veteran of the Book-Banning Wars on the Importance of Speaking Out.
I made a long list of like-minded people in town—friends, parents, teachers, librarians—and they were willing to show up and speak out at the school board meeting.” And that made all the difference. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I will say that the penultimate chapter of Stifled Laughter is a verbatim transcription of the audio recording of that meeting, which was, without question, the most amazing school board meeting I’ve ever witnessed, complete with Townsend sinking to his knees and talking to Satan through the floorboards.
And I fought book banning again in Virginia Beach in October 2021, reminding the school board that the First Amendment protects students’ right to receive information and that books don’t divide us, they connect us. But more about that in a moment.
So do I have any regrets about fighting book banning? No. Not one.
NCAC: What were the good things that came out of your fight?
Johnson: As an activist, author, and public speaker on behalf of free speech, I believe I’ve helped raise awareness about the urgent importance of showing up and speaking out against censorship. And I’ve inspired others, I hope, to “fight the good fight,” as often-banned author Jonathan Evison said to me when I thanked him for his wonderful endorsement of Stifled Laughter.
But the most beautiful thing for me personally was how profoundly my family and I were changed—and empowered—by the five-year-long fight for freedom of speech in north Florida, the story I tell in Stifled Laughter.
And more recently in Virginia Beach in 2021 when Evison’s Lawn Boy and five other books were removed by two school board members who, of course, hadn’t read them. It was the height of the pandemic so my son, Ross, and my two granddaughters couldn’t be there in person. But they watched a live stream of the meeting, and as I drove home, Ross called to tell me that after I spoke to the school board, Harper and Samantha applauded.
And this March, my daughter, Anne, and her husband, Ethan, and my two grandsons, Blake and Eliot, came to the book launch of the new edition of Stifled Laughter at the U Bookstore in Seattle. After the reading was over, eight-year-old Eliot asked me, “Do you think they should ban Captain Underpants?” And I said, “Of course not! Think of all the wonderful times we’ve had when I read it to you.” The shared memory made him smile. And that—and my
granddaughters applauding—were the best thing of all.
NCAC: What is your advice to those who are fighting book banning today?
Johnson: We need to turn up the volume, so to speak, by organizing protests (see also: raising hell) against
book banning in our public schools.
In Virginia Beach in 2021, high-school students protested the removal of the six books—Lawn Boy, Gender Queer, A Lesson Before Dying, The Bluest Eye, Beyond Magenta, and Good Trouble—by holding a rally in front of the school board building, which freaked out one right-wing-nut book banner who shouted, “They’re organized! They have a Facebook page!” And the students came into the school board meeting one by one and spoke passionately about the difference these books had made in their lives. All six books were reinstated.
And we’ve all witnessed the power of larger protests, like the massive Women’s March on Washington for abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, or the recent protests for gun safety and democracy in Tennessee.
So we must do the same for students’ right to receive information. And teachers’ freedom of speech. In my long experience, the best place to start is organizing local grass-roots coalitions of like-minded people opposed to book-banning and protesting in a unified voice (there is power and safety in numbers) when books are banned in our communities—and they will be. And our local coalitions can join forces for even larger protests on the state-level like the protests in Tennessee and on the national-level with our own massive march on Washington, D.C. for students’ right to read.
Some might argue that abortion rights and gun safety are life-and-death situations and fighting book banning isn’t. But protecting free speech in our schools is a life-and-death situation for our democracy. As I say in the new Introduction to Stifled Laughter, “If you doubt this is true, read Kathryn Joyce’s three-part investigative series in Salon, where she reports the ‘marching orders for the right: Defund public universities, discard academic freedom, remove credentialing requirements for K–12 teachers and generally foster so much anger against public schools that it drives a nationwide popular movement to privatize education.’ They’ve publicly announced their agenda, and they’re executing it in plain sight. Their long game is to undermine public education. Once it’s privatized, they can impose on students a curriculum that conforms to their right-wing political and moral views. Their endgame is to undermine democracy and replace it with theocracy, never mind that the First Amendment opens with ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ Which is where Stifled Laughter begins . . .”
Additional information about Johnson and Stifled Laughter: One Woman’s Story About Fighting Censorship is available at https://www.claudiahunterjohnson.com.