The other day, I joked with my boyfriend about banned books, remarking that it’s only a matter of time until books like To Kill a Mockingbird, an American classic, are banned out yet again. Because we live in a cultural moment where social-media users can “cancel” just about anything, I decided to research whether or not this had happened yet.
Much to my chagrin, it had.
In Burbank, California, the Burbank Unified School District decided to temporarily ban books, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cay, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, from the required reading list. The small group of parents who advocated to remove these books did so in attempts to protect their children; more specifically, some parents hoped to protect their African-American children from racist bullying. One parent in particular was interviewed by multiple news outlets, citing a situation that took place a few years ago in which her daughter (now in high school) was taunted with a racial slur by her middle-school classmate who claimed he learned the N-word from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
To ignore the merits of these classic books because a middle school boy claimed he learned a racial slur from one of them is not a sufficient solution, in my opinion. Isn’t it possible that this young boy learned or could have learned this word from somewhere outside of the classroom? Isn’t it possible that this boy was just a mean kid looking for any possible way to put down this little girl? Obviously, it’s terrible that this young girl was bullied by a classmate because of her race, and I understand the mother’s frustration at the incident and her instinct to protect her child. But I’m not sure I understand how banning books like the one in question will solve problems like this one in the future. Personally, I think banning the books does more harm than good, and the mother’s reaction to her instinct is ultimately misguided.
The whole point of requiring students to study these novels is to teach the complex lessons about life that they depict. Not only could these books be used as tools to teach about the realities of life for African Americans in the past, but can be used as a jumping off point for discussions about racism in general.
To Kill a Mockingbird in particular serves as an interesting piece of historical fiction, as the premise of the court case involving Tom Robinson parallels real-life incidents of false, racially motivated accusations of rape, including the accusations that got young Emmet Till killed in 1955. This would allow students to recognize the contradiction of the common call to “believe all women,” for example, and the occurrence of false claims that can ruin (and even end) the lives of innocent individuals.
That is precisely why books like these are important: they illuminate nuances.
While books like To Kill a Mockingbird do contain racial slurs, the books actually teach valuable lessons to students, including the importance of being neighborly and the need to stand up against things that are you as an individual know are wrong (like Atticus Finch did as he defended an innocent black man in the 1930’s Jim Crowe south). The book isn’t perfect.
Banning books categorizes books as either “bad” and “harmful” or “good” and “educational.” But things are never that simple. Harper Lee knew this. Lee’s character Atticus Finch demonstrated his nobility in defending an innocent Tom Robinson. However, Finch later revealed his malice in Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman.
People are complicated, which means history and literature is complicated, too. Banning books because of one negative aspect, while ignoring its merits, perpetuates the practice of splitting the world up into black versus white, good versus bad. Things are never that simple.
The controversy surrounding the banning of books like the ones mentioned above is itself complicated. Consider Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The novel allegedly taught an unkind young boy a racial slur, but is also a novel written by an African-American woman that illuminates the realities of racism in the American South in the early 20th century. Isn’t this exactly the type of book that the parents who complained would want their children to read and study? Does the fact that the book features the N-word negate the valuable representation of African Americans and their experiences?
The parents at the center of the book banning controversy also argued that these books are not sufficient representations of black people, and essentially perpetuate systems of oppression, since most of the novels in question were written by white authors. This is a valid argument–take Huckleberry Finn, for example. It may have been progressive at the time of its release, depicting a friendship between a former slave and a young white boy in the Antebellum South; however, the novel can now be recognized as problematic for its depiction of Joe, particularly the dialect Twain writes for him.
However, instead of banning a book with dismissive representations of African Americans, I believe it would be more valuable to use it as tool to teach about America’s history. In my opinion, it would be more beneficial to teach novels including To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn in tandem with books written by black authors, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison. A comparative practice like this would be beneficial to English students, allowing them to be exposed to a variety of perspectives and writing styles. Instead of banning books–which would limit a child’s education–why not make additions to required reading lists and allow them to truly expand their knowledge?
Banning books essentially erases parts of history, creating gaps in a child’s education. Not only does it prohibit students from being exposed to information that can broaden their worldview, but it can lead them to believe that things are black and white (excuse the pun). For example, banning Huckleberry Finn would mean that children would not be aware of the dismissiveness and racially insensitive nature of the characterization of black people in some novels by white authors. If children are unaware of the racism of the past, how will they understand the existence of inequalities in the present day?
Not allowing children to be exposed to uncomfortable moments in American history–such as Mark Twain including a racial slur in the name of one of his main character (“N-word Jim”)–is just as ridiculous and dismissive as those who deny the horrors of Holocaust. Should also ban books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars and Merchant of Venice, as they would traumatize Jewish students? These novels depict the horrors of antisemitism, but are important to study so as to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Just as we should “Never Forget” the antisemitism that led to the Holocaust, we should also not forget the racism that led to the enslavement and legal subjugation of African Americans. Banning these books would help us forget. Forbidding representations of uncomfortable and hurtful moments in American history essentially denies the existence of these horrors, and denies the victims of these historical moments the respect and compassion they deserve.
Banning books–like any form of censorship–is quite a slippery slope; once we start banning books, it’s hard to stop. Today, it is books deemed inflammatory like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cay, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Tomorrow, it is history books that tell the uncomfortable truth of American slavery, the subjugation of Native Americans, and the complex nature of figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson–both of whom owned slaves but believed in freedoms that we enjoy today (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, etc.). Eventually, it’s you who is censored.
I could go on and on about why banning these books is a misguided approach. But the fact remains that I believe the dangers of banning books fully outweigh the alleged protection it provides children.
Petitions to stop these books from being banned can be found here: