Censorship and Book Banning in America

The cover of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Illustrator E. W. Kemble / Public Domain

While reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in school, teachers often spend full class periods discussing a very important issue: Mark Twain's use of the 'n' word throughout the book. It's important to not only explain that the book must be looked at through the context of the time period but also what Twain was trying to do with his story. He was trying to reveal the plight of the slave and he was doing so with the vernacular of the time.

Students may make wisecracks, but it's important to address their humor with information. Students need to understand the word's meaning and Twain's reasons for using it.

These conversations are difficult to have because they are controversial and many people are very uncomfortable with the 'n' word—for good reason. Due to its origins in slavery and racism, it is often the topic of disgruntled phone calls from parents.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the 4th most banned book in schools according to Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstal. In 1998 three new attacks arose to challenge its inclusion in education.

Reasons for Banned Books

Is censorship in schools good? Is it necessary to ban books? Each person answers these questions differently. This is the core of the problem for educators. Books can be found offensive for many reasons.

Here are just some reasons taken from Rethinking Schools Online:

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Reason: Rape scene, "anti-white."
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Reason: Profanity.
  • Go Ask Alice by Anonymous. Reason: Drug use, sexual situations, profanity.
  • A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck. Reason: Depiction of pigs mating and being slaughtered.

More recent books that were challenged according to the American Library Association include the Twilight saga due to its 'religious viewpoint and violence' and 'The Hunger Games' because it was unsuited to the age group, sexually explicit and too violent'.

Many ways exist to ban books. Our county has a group which reads the questionable book and determines whether its educational value exceeds the weight of the objections against it. However, schools can ban books without this lengthy procedure. They just choose not to order the books in the first place. This is the situation in Hillsborough County, Florida. As reported in the St. Petersburg Times, one elementary school will not stock two of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling because of the "witchcraft themes." As the Principal explained it, the school knew they would get complaints about the books so they did not buy them. Many people, including the American Library Association, has spoken out against this. There is an article by Judy Blume on the website for the National Coalition Against Censorship to be very interesting. It's title: Is Harry Potter Evil?

The question that faces us in the future is 'when do we stop?' Do we remove mythology and Arthurian legends because of its references to magic? Do we strip the shelves of medieval literature because it presupposes the existence of saints? Do we remove Macbeth because of the murders and witches? Most would say there is a point where we must stop. But who gets to pick the point?

Proactive Measures an Educator Can Take

Education is not something to be feared. There are enough hurdles in teaching with which we must deal. So how can we stop the above situation from occurring in our classrooms?

Here are just a few suggestions:

  1. Choose the books you use wisely. Make sure that they fit nicely into your curriculum. You should have evidence which you can present that the books you are using are necessary for the student.
  2. If you are using a book that you know has caused concerns in the past, try to come up with alternative novels that students can read.
  3. Make yourself available to answer questions about the books you have chosen. In the very beginning of the school year, introduce yourself to parents at open house and tell them to call you if they have any concerns. If a parent calls you there will probably be less of a problem then if they call administration.
  4. Discuss the controversial issues in the book with the students. Explain to them the reasons those parts were necessary for the author's work.
  5. Have an outside speaker come to class to discuss concerns. For example, if you are reading Huckleberry Finn, get a Civil Rights Activist to give a presentation to students about racism.

Final Word

Ray Bradbury describes a situation in the coda to Fahrenheit 451. It is about a future where all books are burned because the people have decided that knowledge brings pain. It is far better to be ignorant than knowledgeable. Bradbury's coda discusses the censorship that he's faced. He had a play that he sent to a university to be produced. They sent it back because it had no women in it. This is the height of irony. Nothing was said about the content of the play or the fact that there was a reason it featured only men. They did not want to offend a certain group at the school: women. Is there is a place for censorship and banning of books? It's hard to say that children should read certain books in certain grades, but education is not to be feared.