Banned books: why do they get banned and who gets to ban them?
The first question is easy to answer: censorship. Certain books get banned because their content can be subversive enough to upset the status quo and cause readers discomfort.
The second question is more difficult to answer. While the ALA fields letters, concerns, and stays abreast on attempts of censorship, they themselves do not ban books, the opposite in fact. Public outcry, vague and amorphous as that is, seems to be the best answer. Of course it is libraries, however, that ultimately have to implement bans on books: removing them from their shelves, making them less accessible for people like you and I. Which begs a far more interesting question: why should we read banned books?
Because banned books hold some of the most valuable inner truths that need to be shared with you and I.
Banned books trigger social and cultural wounds not yet healed or worked through; they make apparent the ghosts of old paradigms still clung to out of the fear of change. Like when my beloved Harry Potter was banned from certain public school libraries on the basis that it was an occultist text, and an affront to Christian values.
We're talking about a book that urges kids to believe in a better world where good & love will win out over hate & greed, ok people.
But there are better examples than that, books with more at stake. Books like Alice Walker's The Color Purple.
Published in 1982, the book began receiving calls for removal from institutions as early as 1984. Public outcry for its removal stemmed from "sexual and social explicitness," "rough language," and violence, among other complaints. And indeed, those themes and motifs are present throughout the novel, as we follow a sisterhood of women, Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia, through unspeakable domestic violence, rape, racism, and sexism.
But The Color Purple wasn't just banned because it was 'violent' and 'sexually and socially explicit' - it was banned because it triggered an old wound; it made evident a hurt not yet healed and not yet worked through, socially and culturally. The Color Purple evidences treatment of black bodies, female black bodies in particular, that we as a society, want swept under the rug, out of sight and out of mind. We, and by we I really mean they -those who are triggered by these truths, don't want to remember, don't want to know, don't want to deal with the residue those truths have left on our culture, on our communities, and in our collective hearts & souls. We don't want to deal with those truths that helped shape and form the continuing and iterative identity of our country. We don't want the lingering memory of one of our oldest and ugliest truths to still be present, let alone relevant in our 'progressive' and 'modern' times.
But we must remember, we must learn, we must read so that we might understand, and gain a little more perspective and compassion than we did before. We must allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable, especially within the safe pages of books, where the most that can physically hurt us is perhaps a paper cut, so that we might be harbingers for change.
When we ban books, we also neglect to consider the bigger truths that heal and bring peace, rather than sting, when we read them.
The themes and motifs of violence, rape, and abuse in The Color Purple are tools used to explore a larger and more powerful theme: sisterhood. The relationships forged between Celie and her sister Nettie, and then later Shug Avery and Sofia, reveal strength and perseverance unmatched by their male oppressors. Walker teaches us about survival, and where to find hope, love, and compassion in the most dire times.
I first got my hands on The Color Purple when I was working at Coas bookstore - I was fifteen. To say it left an impression on me would be an understatement. I remember how the book made me feel while I was reading it: anxious, unable to sit still, uncomfortable in my skin. But after I finished it, after the final scene where Nettie and Celie embrace after 30 years away from each other, that I felt something different: hope.
If you haven't read The Color Purple, do. It won't be an easy read, but it will be worth it, I promise. After, check out some of Walker's other works - here's a few I'd recommend:
You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful
A Poem Traveled Down My Arm
In Search of our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose