Thoughts for Banned Books Week

Growing up I always thought of banned books as something distant, something absurd that only happened long ago and far away. I could read with a removed shock the story of the “The Rabbit’s Wedding,” a picture book portraying the marriage of a light-furred rabbit and dark-furred rabbit that was ripped from the library shelves of Alabama in the late 1950s. I could laugh at the constant struggle around the country to remove Harry Potter from schools as it might lure children into attempting magic (though, truthfully, personal experience shows that that might have been a legitimate concern). And I could only imagine what my life might have been like if I, like some students around the country, had not been allowed to read such life changing works as Orwell’s 1984, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, or Maurice Sendak’s (Z”L) Where the Wild Things Are. However, on this Banned Books Week, I think it is important to look at a couple critical censorship issues with significant political and educational affects on America today.

Tucson Ethnic Studies Ban: The German poet Heinrich Heine famously wrote, “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”  One could easily reframe that quote – say, “Wherever they ban books, they will also, in the end, ban human beings” – and it would be a powerful lens to view the Tucson School Board’s decision to ban its Ethnic Studies program. Early this year the school board sought to ban books that it deemed promoted, “The overthrow of the U.S. government” or “resentment toward a race or class of people.” Including such classics as Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Elizabeth Martinez’s 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures, the ban sought to curtail the formation of a critical racial identity and a Chicano history of the region in its district’s education system. This ban raises serious questions about the place of these students in American Society.

Sex and Sexuality Education: A fellow RAC LA Sarah was on the hill today talking to congressional offices about protecting funds for comprehensive sex education.   Perhaps the most frequent debate about censorship in schools revolves around removing books from classrooms that are deemed to be sexually explicit. These bans have ranged from children’s books such as It’s So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families, to the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves. Censorship of sex and sexuality is even more complicated when it comes to filters placed on school web browsers: an ACLU report recently found that many schools across America (some inadvertently) block all LGBT content on the internet due to its supposed sexual explicitness. The guiding Jewish principle of sexuality is K’doshim tih’yu, “You shall be holy,” but that holiness can only come with knowledge and that knowledge will be incomplete without books.

The Supreme Court justice and Jewish icon Louis Brandeis once wrote in a decision on censorship, “Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” Indeed fear – fear of the other, of immigrants, of sexuality and of change (and perhaps even the fear of magic and of the monsters in our closets) – seems to drive these movements that seek to ban or destroy books.  Perhaps this year during Banned Books Week we can re-engage with these writings, openly discuss once-controversial ideas, and finally begin to challenge these fears.


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