Saturday, October 7, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023 - Toni Morrison's Beloved

As promised, I'm sharing the banned/challenged books we are reading this year for the 1000 Books Project at Gather Together and Read. Today the focus is on why Toni Morrison's Beloved has been banned or challenged. We are reading Beloved next month and it's our final book for this year's 1000 Books Project

In Florida’s Polk County, Nobel Literature Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s novels The Bluest Eye and Morrison’s Beloved were among 16 books “quarantined”—taken off shelves in public school libraries “so a thorough, thoughtful review of their content can take place,” a spokesperson explained to The Ledger—on Jan. 25 after a complaint. Less than a week earlier, a school board in Wentzville, Missouri had voted 4-3 to remove The Bluest Eye from the district’s high school libraries at a board meeting on Jan. 20. The decisions are just two examples of a wave of book bans and challenges to school libraries’ content currently occurring across the U.S.

The board members overruled recommendations by a committee of educators who reviewed the novel after a parent objected to depictions of pedophilia, incest, and rape. That committee had voted 8-1 to retain the book in district libraries. “This novel helps the reader step into and understand 1941 (pre WWII, pre civil rights movement), small town Black culture in a way no textbook can do,” the committee wrote in a report. “Removing the work would infringe on the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves if they want to read this work of literature.”

Morrison’s works are a regular fixture on the American Library Association (ALA)’s annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. The Bluest Eye has appeared several times, in 2006, 2013, 2014, and 2020. Beloved, Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, is also on the 2006 and 2012 lists. And in the mid-1990s, Song of Solomon was repeatedly challenged in school districts in Colorado, Florida, and Georgia for “inappropriate” and “explicit” material.

In Oct. 2021, a Virginia mom who tried to get Beloved banned from her son’s high school in 2013 was featured in an ad for then-gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, who made education a core part of his platform. He won the governorship the next month. (In 2016 and 2017, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe—Youngkin’s opponent in the 2021 election—had vetoed so-called “Beloved bills,” efforts to enable parents to opt their children out from reading sexually-explicit novels at schools.)

Scholars say one of the reasons Morrison’s books in particular are controversial is because they address, unabashedly, nearly all of the above, centering on dark moments in American history that can be uncomfortable for some people to talk about. Beloved, for example, is inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who killed her daughter in 1856 to spare her from slavery.

“What she tried to do is convey the trauma of the legacy of slavery to her readers. That is a violent legacy,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America, of Morrison’s body of work. “Her books do not sugarcoat or use euphemisms. And that is actually what people have trouble with.”

Who Initiates Challenges?

Prior to 2020, the vast majority of challenges to library books and resources were brought by a single parent who sought to remove or restrict access to a book their child was reading. However, in 2022, 90% of reported book challenges were demands to censor multiple titles - and of those demands to censor library books, 40% sought to remove or restrict more than 100 books all at once.

These numbers and the list of the Top 13 Most Challenged Books of 2022 are evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America's public and school libraries that do not meet their approval. Using social media and other channels, these groups distribute book lists to their local chapters and individual adherents, who then utilize the lists to initiate a mass challenge that can empty the shelves of a library.

Information obtained from the ALA Book Ban Data page

New data shows record surge of challenges in public libraries

CHICAGO — The American Library Association (ALA) has released new preliminary data documenting the continued rise in attempts to censor books and materials in public, school and academic libraries during the first eight months in 2023.

Between January 1 and August 31, 2023, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles.* The number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20 percent from the same reporting period in 2022, the year in which the highest number of book challenges occurred since ALA began compiling this data more than 20 years ago. Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49 percent of those OIF documented, compared to 16 percent during the same reporting period in 2022. The largest contributor to the rise in both the number of censorship attempts and the increase in titles challenged continues to be a single challenge by a person or group demanding the removal or restriction of multiple titles.
  • As in 2022, 9 in 10 of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles.
  • Cases documenting a challenge to 100 or more books were reported in 11 states, compared to six during the same reporting period in 2022 and zero in 2021.
In the past, most challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict a single book.   

“These attacks on our freedom to read should trouble every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”

Source: American Library Association Releases Preliminary Data on 2023 Book Challenges - ALA News

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  1. My goodness, yes, its that time of year. A book I have never read though keep on meaning to, I've seen it featured on a few banned book week posts in the past as as always am left shaking my head. Thank you for explaining so much in this post about the process, I will one day read up on the censorship of books here in the UK as I'm sure it isn't such a big thing ... but then who knows.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. It would be interesting to know how often, if at all, book banning/challenges happen in the UK.

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