The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And even the recent popular culture phenomenon, the Harry Potter series.
All of these seemingly-unrelated books share a common thread; each has been banned or challenged by conservative literary activists and professional educators.
Each of these significant cultural works metaphorically transcends the written word on a page and respectively represents a different America: one faced with the ugly dehumanization of slavery, a post-bellum country continuing to brutalize their impoverished minorities and a wealthy country recently taking a liking to imaginative coming-of-age epics.
In fact, nearly half of the top ten most-challenged pieces of literature are tenants on the list of primary works of literary art. Including the aforementioned texts, the American Library Association’s Web site lists John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as another text historically experiencing a barrage of worry and censorship attempts in certain schools and libraries.
Other works suffering separate, but similar, moral criticism includes James Joyce’s Ulysses, Walt Whitman’s collection of poetry Leaves of Grass and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
When advocates for book censorship deem a certain text inappropriate for younger audiences, the conflict becomes a fight against the right to free speech. Freedom of speech, some claim, is as purely and explicitly American as its flag. Others stand beside a strict, conservative moral code, which is implicitly American as well. Those in favor of banning certain books often find these written displays of immorality and promiscuity challenging to the traditional social mores and potentially compromising to their personal values.
The opponents of book banning and censorship contend the action is a direct and blatant violation against the freedom of speech. The result of these two sides is a muddled argument of personal rights versus collective social morality.
In 2005, according to the American Library Association, over half of the most-challenged books deal with sexual themes, including 20th century classics like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings faced heated debates due to its use of incest within the narrative as well as its profane language. Recently, scholars and critics have argued J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series persuades children to sinfully indulge themselves in black magic and devil worshiping. Opponents of Twain’s still widely-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are sensitive to Twain’s heavy use of the word nigger and Finn’s lack of moral development throughout this American picaresque novel.
Whether people are advocates for keeping certain books in an uncensored format or banning them, their inability to sit quietly in their corners rightfully exists in a country where intelligent and respectful disagreements are encouraged.
Many major texts have undergone some amount of disapproval and debate; even the Bible’s place in libraries and schools has been vehemently argued about. In a country with a countless number of varying belief and value systems, a book is bound to experience welcoming acceptances as well as bitter reproaches from the world of academia and the general reading population.
The American Library Association continues to fight against book banning and censorship by organizing and instituting Banned Book Week in the last week of September. During this weeklong celebration, the ALA urges people to read historically banned books, utilizing their own discretion and encouraging the right to free speech.
Books are a powerful medium. As we learn in his powerful autobiography, reading permitted the once-enslaved Frederick Douglass to become a free man. While banning books and censorship does compromise the right to the freedom of speech, its value becomes apparent in the American culture’s redefining of right and wrong, good and bad and artistic and unartistic.