Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us: Banned Books Week 2021 at the U
September 27, 2021
Banned Books Week Challenges Ideas of Censorship in Education
The J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah is celebrating this year’s Banned Books Week by holding events to honor the theme: “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
After a surge of challenges and attempts to ban books across the nation, the American Library Association started Banned Books Week in 1982.
Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week attempts to bring together librarians, booksellers, teachers and more to support the freedom of expression and open access to information.
The Role of Libraries Amid Challenges to Literature
This year, the Marriott Library is celebrating Banned Books Week with a scavenger hunt and tabling.
From Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, the library will be posting clues on their social media as to where to find “book covers” placed throughout the library. If they find one, a student can trade their cover in for the actual banned book it represents.
On Sept. 28, the library will be tabling to educate campus community members about banned books.
Heidi Brett, the marketing and public relations director of the Marriott Library, said the American Library Association tries to bring the voices of libraries together amid challenges to literature.
Brett said it is important to recognize the importance of intellectual freedom.
“Our freedom of speech is very important, and it’s essential that we recognize that censorship does exist in our society and the importance of staying abreast of potential censorship and the banning of intellectual content,” she said.
According to Brett, libraries are essential in advocating for freedom of information when books are challenged.
“We want students to know that we’re doing these events because we want students to understand how important their access to intellectual property is, and how critical it is that we don’t take it for granted,” she said.
Lyuba Basin, the rare books curator at the Marriott Library, started at the library while completing her undergraduate degree in English and linguistics, and fell in love with the power of books to tell a reader so much about history, culture, society and politics.
The rare books collection at the Marriott Library has two digital exhibitions centered around banned books and censorship. Curated in 2015 by Luise Poulton, Shhhhhh! showcases banned books throughout the ages. The second exhibition, titled Radical!, focuses on censorship and dissent, and was curated in 2020 by Basin herself.
Through her experience studying comparative literary and cultural history, Basin learned of the dangers of censorship.
“I have come to learn about so many different cultures and religions and societies and histories that I otherwise would have never [learned about] just through a basic reading,” she said. “So, even if the books are controversial or even if the books come from a different culture than mine, reading this material gives me a little bit of insight. It provides empathy in the reader.”
Breaking Down Banned Books Week
Every year, the American Library Association releases its “Top 10 Most Challenged Books List,” with 2020 bringing 156 challenges to library, school and university materials and services.
Out of the 273 targeted books, the most challenged one was “George” by Alex Gino due to its LGBTQIA+ content conflicting with religious viewpoints.
In 2020 it ranked No. 7, being banned and challenged “for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience.”
Erika George, the director of the Tanner Humanities Center and professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, said this novel is particularly close to her heart. She called it an “astounding success” which speaks to some of the challenges of the criminal justice system.
“I can’t tell you how many law professors, lawyers, colleagues and friends who have dogs named Atticus,” she said. “So it really is a hero story for lawyers bringing the legal system to task to not be an unjust system.”
George explained the regional differences in reasons for banning the book, noting how in the North, Black parents were concerned about racial slurs and epithets being used, whereas in the South, people were concerned about the framing of white people as racist.
“And as we are coming out of the aftermath of Black Lives Matter, protests and uprisings, we really need to do some deep thinking about our criminal justice system,” she said. “I just find it fascinating that a novel of literary text takes on many of the challenges and questions the law has been hesitant to move as quickly on as one might hope.”
The Tanner Humanities Center is also participating in Banned Books Week this year, by having faculty members pick a banned book and discuss it with students.
“As the College of Humanities, we house English, we house history, we think about how we understand what it is to be human,” George said. “Literature helps us in increasing that understanding, and deepening our knowledge.”
As a constitutional law professor and former member of the ACLU board, George is interested in censorship and the implications of limiting imagination and creativity, which she believes is fostered through books.
“So I was very interested … in the implications of banning books, permitting ideas from having an opportunity to be heard, and what we lose when we don’t expose ourselves to ideas that differ or stories that have been imagined,” she said.
According to George, this year’s Banned Books Week is especially important in Utah because of recent challenges to topics such as critical race theory being taught in schools.
“The Banned Books Week for me is significant because it speaks to issues of freedom of expression and the corollary right to receive information,” she said. “So expression is also about having audience and it’s really not just this silencing a speaker or writer, but readers are part of this too.”
George thinks challenging content like this is an overbroad action.
“We can be more expansive in our understanding and trusting people to work with ideas and information,” she said.
According to George, the conversation around books should be different than things like tweets, which she said are fleeting and done for shock value.
“When we look at literature and the creative process and the books that have been written and banned over the years, they’ve really contributed to a conversation about what America is, about who we are as people,” she said.
George wanted the Tanner Humanities Center to be a part of Banned Books Week this year because she was concerned about the efforts to ban particular content nationwide.
“When we censor accurate ideas or information or don’t invite creativity and imagination in literature, I think we do more to damage and divide than we do to unite and educate and inform and potentially inspire,” she said.
George said there is a need in modern society for more understanding — understanding that can be achieved through an expansion of knowledge provided by literature.
“So to take information out of the general space of ideas, labeling it as bad, wrong, banned, has a long history, and it’s been a sad and sordid one,” she said. “Over time, history has told that the literature that has been banned has come to be some of America’s greatest novels.”
The Banning of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’
Roots in History
As books are reviewed annually, the controversy over classic literature continues as books are banned from being read in schools. One of those on the list, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” is a standard in early high school curriculum. It discusses social issues and attitudes, including entrenched racism, in the American South during the Great Depression.
I read Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel my freshman year of high school. Reading the book on my own and sharing ideas during class discussions helped me see a lot of the themes of the story as problematic, especially in comparison to the social climate we’re in currently.
With a power-in-numbers approach to discussing the work and its opposition getting more coverage and vocal in the media, it makes sense why a book pointing out southern racism against Black people would be putting communities on the defense.
Why It’s Worth the Read
The banning of “To Kill A Mockingbird” sparks the question — are we giving up on re-educating ourselves? Like many novels, it serves as a placeholder in time with its historical references to American slavery, becoming a resource for education. It’s important to acknowledge from the time we are reading it in classroom what’s wrong with certain phrases and racial slurs used in the novel without keeping students from discovering our country’s problematic past and how it affects society today.
Boiled down, Lee’s novel centers around the conflict when a black man is accused of a crime quite simply because he was the easier target, the color of his skin reason enough for putting him on trial.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” starts a discussion about what that mindset is rooted in through a “nature versus nurture” conversation, demonstrating how characters like Scout and Atticus are actively going through that process of understanding why racism exists.
The conversation in the novel goes beyond whether or not the book should be banned on an educational level. Getting rid of the novel would be knowingly covering up history, which is counterproductive to the progress being made in community acceptance.
Reading this book in school, I had more realizations about the dark parts of American history in my English classes than I did in history. Lee’s novel painted a more vivid picture because it was honest. It brought out that childhood curiosity in me that Scout has — confused about why things are the way they are and seeing how they could be different.
Especially from looking at it from the children’s perspective, the message of the book is meant for younger minds along with proper education on the history of Black people in America. I believe that with its potential to help people learn about the systematics of how our society functions — banning the book will only do more harm than good.