Today, if you’re an English teacher (or know one), this post is for you. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has an Intellectual Freedom Center. Fighting censorship since the days of McCarthy, NCTE supports teachers at all levels who wish to provide their students with diverse, challenging texts to read, whether for class assignments or for personal pleasure.
In their policy statement, “The Students’ Right to Read” (2018), they explain
The right to read, like all rights guaranteed or implied within our constitutional tradition, can be used wisely or foolishly. In many ways, education is an effort to improve the quality of choices open to all students. But to deny the freedom of choice in fear that it may be unwisely used is to destroy the freedom itself. For this reason, we respect the right of individuals to be selective in their own reading. But for the same reason, we oppose efforts of individuals or groups to limit the freedom of choice of others or to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large.https://ncte.org/statement/righttoreadguideline/, accessed 09/25/2021
Because, according to the ALA’s infographic below, 53% of challenges happen in in schools and school libraries, NCTE’s work is critical as censorship efforts continue. The COVID epidemic brought the number of challenges down for 2020 (273, compared to 566 in 2019; ALA OIF), but it’s likely the numbers will rise as schools reopen.
Today’s featured banned book is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s heartbreaking to think that the book is now being challenged in part because Atticus Finch is interpreted as a “white savior of blacks”. Heartbreaking because this complaint is absolutely right about Scout’s father, but ironically so, since in the end Atticus wasn’t able to save Tom Robinson. I can, I hope, imagine how enraging it is for a reader to see people like them continually portrayed as poor, ignorant, and helpless without someone of a different gender, race, class or religion coming to their rescue. But until more authors of diverse backgrounds are published, what’s a reader to do?
And what’s an author to do? Harper Lee writes about the world she grew up in: The poverty and racism in the American south during the early part of the 20th century. Her own father was a lawyer who, in 1919, defended two black men against murder charges; he lost the case and the two men were horribly executed. Hatred and violence were everywhere. Plus, I suspect that Lee was not writing about how Atticus tried to save Tom, but instead about why that effort failed. Still, there’s a reason it appears on so many lists of top 20th century novels.
I’ll try to be more cheerful, and less incendiary, in tomorrow’s post. And remember the theme for this year’s Banned Books Week: Censorship Divides Us, Books Unite Us.