The assignment today is not to contrast but to compare the following six books, and you have a split second to do it: Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, John Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath, Anne Frank's The Diary Of a Young Girl, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In the Rye, Mark Mathabane's Kaffir Boy, and George Orwell's 1984.
Pencils down. The answer is ...
Each of these books has been, if not banned at some time from American classrooms, school libraries, or public libraries, then at least challenged by parents, patrons, administrators, or concerned citizens sure that they're right and everybody else is wrong. (A challenge, by definition, is an attempt to remove or restrict written material based on the objections of a person or group. A ban is the successful removal of that material.) Between 1990 and 2000, 6,364 challenges were reported to or recorded by the Office For Intellectual Freedom. The grounds for complaint: a book's "sexual explicitness" or "use of offensive language" or "unsuitability for age group" or "violent content" or, in the case of another two troublesome titles -- J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Leslea Newman and Diana Souza's Heather Has Two Mommies -- "promoting the occult or Satanism" and, worse, "promoting homosexuality."
You may agree or disagree, agree to disagree with any or all of the above attempts to play loose with the First Amendment and with one's right to read what one wishes ... but the diary of Anne Frank?
According to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU in Nashville, that classic account of an adolescence spent in hiding from the Nazis was past judged by somebody in the state of Alabama as being "a real downer." The kids forced into reading it would not be all right.
But such a move to restrict anybody's access to a book is not all right with the American Library Association, which believes that "librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents -- and only parents -- have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children -- and only their children -- to library resources." For that reason, since 1982, that organization, together with the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores, has sponsored Banned Books Week. Beginning last year, they were joined by the ACLU, and this year, the week runs September 21st through the 28th. The theme: "Let Freedom Read."
And read they will at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on the evening of Tuesday, September 24th, from passages out of the six books mentioned in the opening paragraph above, passages chosen specifically by the ACLU's Amy Drittler to reflect the "literature of troubled times." Among the readers: Courtney Oliver and Ben Hensley from Playhouse On the Square, painter Ephraim Urevbu, and the Flyer's theater critic, Chris Davis. (The Raleigh Branch Public Library also has a full slate of programs for the week, with busy man Chris Davis speaking on controversial art on Wednesday, September 25th. Check with the library for its schedule of events.)
"There's always a political overtone to why books are censored or challenged," says Weinberg. "When you look at some of the comments made by our politicians today or comments made by Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House press secretary Ari Fleischman (who remarked that Americans should now watch what they say), clearly, the government is sending out its own message about criticizing the government. Banned Books Week is a call to all Tennesseans to be active and vocal in defense of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression.
"Democracy only thrives when government acts openly and when people feel safe to read and express themselves. But today, there seems to be an antispeech campaign by some people in high levels of government. And we see that trickle down to the county level and pressure by private groups and individuals. 'Free speech' goes for the written word.
"If someone wants to protest against a book in the public library, they have a right to protest in front of the library. The ACLU supports that right. But we don't believe that a library or public school should bow to that protest and violate the freedom of readers. The importance of Banned Books Week is to strengthen the voice of everyone. And so we tried to make sure that the selection of books for the Memphis reading was a range of authors -- Native American, South Africa, Depression-era. We feel good about our choices. And we hope Shelby Countians come out for the event."
Shelby Countians, please do.
Tuesday, September 24th
Raleigh Branch Public Library
All events 2:30 p.m.