Banned Books by African-American Authors

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Why were these 13 African-American classics banned?

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Collage of African-American authors and book covers that have been banned. Getty Images/Public Domain/Price Grabber

What do James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright all have in common? 

They are all African-American writers who have published texts that are considered American classics. 

And they are also authors whose novels have been banned by school boards and libraries across the United States. 

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Selected Texts by James Baldwin

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Go Tell it On the Mountain was James Baldwin's debut novel. The semi-autobiographical work is a coming-of-age story and has been used in schools since its publication in 1953.

However, in 1994, its use in a Hudson Falls, NY school was challenged because of its explicit depictions of rape, masturbation, violence and abuse of women.

Other novels such as If Beale Street Could Talk, Another Country and A Blues for Mister Charlie have also been banned. 

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"Native Son" by Richard Wright

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When  Richard Wright's Native Son was published in 1940, it was the first bestselling novel by an African-American author. It was also the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection by an African-American author. The following year, Wright received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.

The novel received criticism as well.

The book was removed from high school bookshelves in Berrain Springs, MI because it was “vulgar, profane and sexually explicit.” Other school boards believed the novel was sexually graphic and violent.

Nevertheless, Native Son was turned into a theatrical production and was directed by Orson Welles on Broadway.

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Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"

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 Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man chronicles the life of an African-American man who migrates to New York City from the South. In the novel, the protagonist feels alienated as a result of racism in society.

Like Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ellison’s novel received great acclaim including a National Book Award. The novel has been banned by school boards—as recently as last year—as board members in Randolph County, NC argued the book held no “literary value.”

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"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou

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Maya Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969.

Since 1983, the memoir has had 39 public challenges and/or bans for its portrayal of rape, molestation, racism and sexuality.

Angelou's collection of poetry And Still I Rise has also been challenged and in some cases prohibited by school districts after parent groups complained of "suggestive sexuality" present in the text.

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Selected Texts by Toni Morrison

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Throughout Toni Morrison's career as a writer, she’s explored events such as the great migration. She’s developed characters such as Pecola Breedlove and Sula, who have allowed her to explore issues such as racism, images of beauty and womanhood.

Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye is a classic novel, lauded since its 1973 publication. Because of the novel’s graphic details, it has also been banned. An Alabama state senator attempted to have the novel banned from schools throughout the state because “The book is just completely objectionable, from language to the content…because the book deals with subjects such as incest and child molestation.” As recent as 2013, parents in a Colorado school district petitioned for The Bluest Eye to be excluded from the 11th-grade reading list because of its “explicit sexual scenes, describing incest, rape, and pedophilia.”   

Like The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s third novel Song of Solomon has received both acclaim and criticism. In 1993, the novel’s use was challenged by a complainant in the Columbus, Ohio school system who believed it was degrading to African-Americans. The following year, the novel was removed from the library and required reading lists in Richmond County, Ga. after a parent characterized the text as “filthy and inappropriate.” 

And in 2009, a superintendent in Shelby, MI. took the novel off of the curriculum. It was later reinstated to the Advanced Placement English curriculum. However, parents must be informed about the novel’s content. 

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Alice Walker's "The Color Purple"

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The Color Purple has been banned by school districts and libraries since it was published in 1983. Price Grabber

 As soon as Alice Walker published The Color Purple in 1983, the novel became the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The book was also criticized for its “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history and human sexuality.”

Since then, an estimated 13 times by school boards and libraries throughout the United States. In 1986, for instance, The Color Purple was taken off of open shelves in the Newport News, Va. school library for its “profanity and sexual references.” The novel was only available for students over 18 with permission from a parent. 

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"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston

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 Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered the last novel to be published during the Harlem Renaissance. But sixty years later, Zora Neale Hurston's  novel was challenged by a parent in Brentsville, Va. who argued that it was sexually explicit. However, the novel was still kept on the high school’s advanced reading list.