Censorship and Book Banning in America

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. By E. W. Kemble (1861–1933) - illustrator - Scanned from the book, Public Domain

It's a typical day in your 11th Grade American Literature. You are teaching about Mark Twain and decide that the students would not only enjoy but get a lot out of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The school has purchased enough books for each student to receive one, so you hand them out. Then you spend the rest of the class period discussing a very important issue: Twain's use of the 'n' word throughout the book. You explain that not only do we have to look at the book through the context of the time period, but we also have to understand what Twain was trying to do with his story. He was trying to reveal the plight of the slave. And he was doing it with the vernacular of the time. The students snicker a little. Some might even make wisecracks when they think you're not listening. But you hear and correct them. You make sure they understand the reason behind the word. You ask for any questions or concerns. You tell the students they can come to speak with you later. None do. All seems well.

A week passes. The students have already had their first quiz. Then, you receive a call from the principal. It seems that one of the parents is concerned at the prevalence of the 'n' word in the book. They consider it racist. They want you to quit teaching it. They make hints that they will take the issue further if their needs are not met. What do you do?

This situation is not a pleasant one. But it is not necessarily a rare one either. 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 Maya Angelou. Reason: Rape scene, "anti-white"
  • Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck. Reason: Profanity
  • Go Ask Alice Anonymous. Reason: Drug use, sexual situations, profanity
  • A Day No Pigs Would Die 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?

There is a list of banned books with their reason for being banned.

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. I'm sure you can think of much more. 

  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

I remember a situation that Ray Bradbury describes in the coda to Fahrenheit 451. In case you aren't familiar with the story itself, it is about a future where all books are burned because the people have decided that knowledge brings the pain. It is far better to be ignorant than knowledgeable. Bradbury's coda discusses the censorship that he's faced. He had a play which 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? I cannot, in all honesty, say that children should read certain books in certain grades. Education is not to be feared.