One of the most sacred rites of academic passage for students is to read the great novels of American and English literature. These monumental works of fiction can open students up to new ideas and challenge them as they begin to cast off childhood. Some of these towering works include J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, George Orwell’s 1984, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
However, for students in Burbank, California, those moments in English class when classic books challenge them to broaden their minds may have come undone. The latter three works listed above, plus two other books, have been banned from schools there. The ban is based on complaints from four parents who felt the racial subject matter could be harmful to the black students in the district.
Three of the parents who complained are themselves black and saw the decision to teach the novels as tone-deaf – and even damaging. One parent complained her daughter was “legitimately traumatized” when she was taunted by a classmate with a racist insult – a word used in one of the banned books, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. These parents also voiced concerns that teaching these books implied that racism in America is a thing of the past instead of an ongoing challenge.
Counter-complaints were lodged by others who acknowledged the concerns but said the community should be a part of the decision.
A History of Book Banning and Burning
Books deemed controversial have been banned many times in history. Swap a few letters in the word “banning,” and one remembers the times when book-burning was a literal incendiary act. Most 20th-century book burnings were political demonstrations staged by those in power.
In 1933 the Nazis proclaimed a nationwide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” This justified the burning of books written by Jewish citizens. Also targeted were books by pacifist, socialist, anarchist and communist authors. The Nazis portrayed themselves as the victims and a few years later they progressed from book burning to the burning of human beings in the Holocaust.
Likewise, in the mid-20th century, Mao Zedong of China staged book burnings of any volumes that failed to conform to party propaganda and were deemed a threat to the all-powerful “Great Leader Chairman Mao.” This regime resulted in around 70 million Chinese deaths by execution or forced labor.
For exposing the Russian holocaust, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books were banned in the Soviet Union. Highly critical of the Gulag system of forced labor, the Nobel Prize-winning author spent eight years in labor camps and three in banishment for his criticism of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.
In Burbank, CA, the five classic works of fiction removed from the curriculum were not burned or purged from the district, but merely banned from schools. This isn’t the first time areas in America have banned books they disagreed with.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was banned in the South after it was first published for condemning slavery. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was banned for what its critics said was a negative view of rugged American individualism in favor of what was perceived to be a promotion of socialist or communist values. J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was banned for being “obscene.” William Golding’s The Lord of The Flies was controversial for passages of violence. Some also complained that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series elevated the dark arts of black magic.
Banning Books – Solution or Slippery Slope?
Perhaps including works by black authors into the curriculum along with the now banned books would have been a better solution than dismissing those works of literature from classrooms. Banning books often makes sense to the people who want to eliminate them from society, but, in the end, a free society welcomes all voices and can learn from what they have to teach us. In nearly every instance, the answer to offensive speech is more speech – not less.