Pages worth of protest may be sitting right on your bookshelves. This October kicked off during Banned Books Week, traditionally observed annually in the last week of September; but the history behind the censorship of books is worth revisiting any day of the year.
In 1982, just a year into the escalating conservatism of the Ronald Reagan era, the first Banned Books Week resisted censorship and fortified Americans’ First Amendment right to intellectual freedom in our libraries, schools and bookstores. It was the brainchild of Judith Krug, a librarian and activist who labeled Madonna’s 1992 Sex book “sleaze” but ardently defended folks’ right to access and read it.
In the years since, hundreds of other books have been challenged or removed from shelves because of content that includes sex, violence, drug references, cursing, the occult—anything determined by disapproving library patrons, parents and political groups to be offensive, age-inappropriate, and, in many cases, “anti-family” (whatever that means). Not surprisingly, Black authors have often been the targets of their manufactured controversy because turns out, race is an incendiary that makes good, wholesome folks uncomfortable, too.
The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom didn’t start compiling lists of the most challenged books and collecting data about who was challenging them until 1990, so we don’t know exactly which titles were targeted from Day One. Some, like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have held consecutive places of honor for more than 20 years. Many of the books on the top 100 list have been targeted because of LGBT content, and not just books—there’s been increased opposition to LGBT programming at libraries across the country, too. So, because October is also LGBT History Month, it’s even more critical to beat back the methodical silencing of authors, storytellers and writers who bring their LGBT American experience to life through words.
From 2018 to 2019, there was a documented 14 percent jump in attempts to censor books and other media just from 2018 to 2019. Despite the trending topic of diversity, inclusion and “everybody-ness,” the other side is flexing its collective pushback even harder. With that in mind, let’s celebrate books that raise issues and eyebrows, that bypass respectability and comfort for representation and honesty. Here are seven awesome titles that have earned a slot on the Banned Books list at least once and deserve a read (or reread).
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
A sequel to her 1975 novella Song of the Trees, the Newberry Medal-winning book is Taylor’s semi-autobiographical story of young Cassie Logan, a Black girl navigating a climate of racism in the Jim Crow South, who learns how her family’s land is the currency of place, pride and courage in the Great Depression. It was followed by Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981).
Tyrell by Coe Booth
From the book jacket: “Tyrell is a young African-American teen who can’t get a break. His father’s in jail and he’s living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father’s footsteps?”
Native Son by Richard Wright
Read it and you’ll understand why, even 60 years after its publication, this book so troubles conservative white folks. Bigger Thomas is a young Black man caught in a downward spiral of sociological pressure in 1930s Chicago, even before he seals his destiny by killing a young White woman in a moment of overwhelm and panic.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Come on, now. If you need a summary for this 38-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning, National Book Award-earning, turned-into-a-classic-movie book, it’s time to just read it.
Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron
Herron’s inaugural children’s book landed on the list for being “racially insensitive,” but she wrote it as a celebration of her main character Brenda’s knotted-up, twisted, nappy hair—and, inadvertently, her own. (The book is based on her own hair love story.) Written in traditional call-and-response style, Nappy Hair is meant to be read out loud to help young readers catch the rhythm.
Jazmin’s Notebook by Nikki Grimes
Set in 1960s Harlem, where she lives with her older sister, CeCe, 14-year-old Jazmin is a writer who processes the circumstances around her—the death of her father, her mother’s alcoholism—through poetry. Short and lyrical, Jazmin’s Notebook was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and earned Grimes, a New York Times bestselling author, several other literary honors.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Honestly, Morrison’s work perpetually occupies quite a bit of space on the Banned Books List—The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon have both been residential favorites for nearly as long as the list has existed. She once said of censorship: “The erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films—that thought is a nightmare.”