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Censoring Black Literature: Six Banned Books You Won’t Find In Classrooms
As we kick off Banned Books Week, here are a few banned books by Black authors that you can pick up to “Let Freedom Read."
In all cultures, storytelling is essential for preserving and sharing history across generations. For Black authors specifically, storytelling serves as a way to fill in the blanks of Black history while also acting as a beacon of inspiration for readers and writers alike. Black authors, such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Maya Angelou, have written several works that stand uncontested as literary classics. However, in recent years, there has been more of a push to remove these authors and those like them from shelves. Book bans and literary censorship are among the latest divisions in the U.S. These efforts have been occurring more frequently as some parents struggle with their kids being exposed to sensitive topics and issues. Books written by Black authors have quickly become easy targets in the quest to remove these titles.
The first week of October jumpstarted Banned Books Week, seven days of celebrating the “freedom to read.'' The 40-year-old annual event celebrates challenged and banned literature and spotlights attempts to censor books in libraries and schools. It's important to remember that making an effort to read and share these titles makes a difference for Black authors currently facing censorship in our country.
With that, here are the top six most frequently banned books written by Black authors.
'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison
Cover of 'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison, Penguin Random House.
To say that Toni Morrison is one of our time's most prolific and respected Black authors is an understatement. Utilizing her captivating storytelling abilities, Morrison has amassed a large global following of dedicated and loyal admirers. One of her most notable works, The Bluest Eye, tells the story of a young African-American girl who struggles and faces daunting issues in all aspects of life, especially with society’s oppressive beauty standards. As a result, she develops the desire to have blue eyes. The poignant tale has captured audiences since its release in 1970, with many drawing personal parallels to the events that unfold in the novel.
However, the novel has also faced immense criticism tracing back to its original release. At this point, the novel has been banned on 14 separate accounts and challenged 73 times in schools all over the country. Unfortunately, The Bluest Eye is not the only of Morrison’s titles to be ripped from shelves. Other works of hers, such as Beloved and Song of Solomon, are also being taken from schools.
'All Boys Aren’t Blue' by George Johnson
Cover art of 'All Boys Aren't Blue' by George Johnson.
George Johnson is a queer, Black American author and activist most known for their book, All Boys Aren’t Blue. The book is presented as a collection of essays that explicitly detail their experiences growing up as a Black member of the LGBTQ+ community. Johnson’s written work detailing personal events encapsulates thoughts and feelings that are often difficult to articulate. Johnson, who also draws inspiration from Toni Morrison, made a conscious effort to write the book they would’ve wanted to read.
Although some embraced the book with open arms, many found it inappropriate for its descriptions of sexual situations. The book is banned in 29 districts, the second most banned book in the country, and it has been challenged 86 times. Most of its backlash is centered around homophobia, with many parents fearing the sort of influence it will have on their children. Johnson however retorts that the world, “Exists outside of a heterosexual bubble.” Queer representation is essential, whether received in a book or a film, just as standard representation has been depicted. By removing Johnson’s book and others across the country, many students face a closed door instead of a safe space for questions, thoughts, and proper understanding.
'The 1619 Project' by Nikole Hannah Jones
Cover art for 'The 1619 Project' by Nikole Hannah-Jones, Prana Blessings Metaphysical Shop.
The 1619 Project is a collection of essays by author and investigative journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The book relays the history of African Americans in the U.S. and highlights the information frequently left out of history textbooks and classroom discussions. With the information presented, readers can begin to understand the place of slavery in America and its impact on the progression of the enslaved and those who came after them. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer for this project, an accolade that loudly applauds her work in historical preservation.
Considering the extent of the information the book contains, it comes as no surprise that this book has been banned in several districts across the country. Black people have been calling out the increase in widespread efforts to diminish the events and effects of slavery for years, and this book serves as the perfect example. The book is banned in Florida schools under the “Stop W.O.K.E Act” implemented by Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis’ legislative measure specifically aims to limit the teaching of topics surrounding race and sex, which are essential in moral development. The act also takes a specific jab at critical race theory, a recurring theme in many of the books banned and challenged in recent years. Critical race theory acknowledges the systemic racism intertwined in everyday life and highlights the issues surrounding these occurrences. With clear evidence of censorship aside, legislative efforts like these put Black authors at serious risk of having their work deemed unfit for audiences who need them the most. The push to limit this type of education caused Hannah-Jones’ book to be banned in 14 states following its release. By removing books like these from shelves in schools and libraries, knowledge is being withheld, and those who want to learn are left in the dark. Black history proves its importance repeatedly, which is why students must have a foundation of knowledge they can build upon.
'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker
Cover art for 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker, Abe Books.
The Color Purple is a highly respected and loved work of art that has amassed generations of fans all over the world. The novel portrays the life journey of a young girl who struggles to find her sense of self and identity after a life of trauma. Walker released the novel in 1982 and received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize shortly after. The film adaptation of The Color Purple is arguably one of the most referenced films in recent years. Its star-studded cast and various accolades have made the movie a classic in the eyes of many. The musical has also received high acclaim, with buzz about the remake coming later this year.
Like the other works mentioned above, The Color Purple has been no stranger to criticism. Themes of homosexuality, abuse, and violence make the novel a target for book-banning proponents. The efforts to ban the novel began shortly after its release and haven’t slowed since. The novel was challenged and banned several times between 1984 and 2010. While it is understandable that some parents may want to keep their children from reading about abusive sexual situations, the most prevalent complaints were regarding violence, race relations, and profanity. With this book especially, the efforts to remove it from schools come off as more performative than genuine, especially considering that many classics written by white authors are not as heavily contested.
'All American Boys' by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Cover art for 'All American Boys' by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Simon & Schuster.
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely are the critically acclaimed authors of one of the most profound novels in recent years, All American Boys. The pair share the story of two boys, one white and one Black, who have to navigate their societal roles following incidents of police brutality and racism. In today’s climate, this book displays topics and situations that are not far-fetched. Both characters in the book are teenagers, a chilling yet realistic nod to the real-life situations many Black people fear today. Although the book conveys fictional accounts, the words on the pages feel as real as the events we see on the news. Because the novel discussed uncomfortable topics, it was almost immediately hit with backlash and calls for removal. In one case, it was described as “almost an indoctrination of distrust of police.” Parents and government officials nationwide have voiced the same concerns, with many upset with the book portraying such “divisive” topics. However, taking a book out of a school library doesn’t make the problem it depicts any less significant. While some have the privilege of seeing the issues presented as “too much of a sensitive matter right now,” Black people in America do not share that same luxury. The anxiety of police encounters cannot be reduced by censorship, mainly because the problem still ravages families across America. Removing this book schools does a great disservice to the teens and young adults who need something to relate to.
'Dear Martin' by Nic Stone
Cover art for 'Dear Marin' by Nic Stone, Simon & Schuster.
As mentioned earlier, police brutality continues to be an extremely prevalent issue in the Black community. New York Times bestselling author Nic Stone wrote her debut novel, Dear Martin, in response to the rampant deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers. Her efforts to present the novel as a representation of the realities that young Black boys and men face do not go unnoticed. Stone’s novel depicts the journey of a young Black boy who becomes a victim of police brutality through no fault of his own, an occurrence we know all too well.
Dear Martin was banned and challenged in school districts nationwide, with many citing its “anti-police” views. “Discomfort is the root of pretty much all book bans,” Stone stated in a 2022 interview. Fortunately, the backlash has not stopped Stone from writing about these important societal issues. Stone’s novel evokes levels of critical thinking that many students have expressed gratitude for. Implementing bans on books that create spaces for teens and young adults to discuss will not improve anything for any group.
Although the books mentioned above contain situations that are sometimes difficult to discuss, these conversations are needed now more than ever. Buying, reading, and sharing these books increases public interest and promotes much-needed discourse in society. Without literature that challenges our rigid minds and worldviews, we ultimately limit our potential for growth and development.
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