Does the first amendment work the same for all Americans? What kind of freedoms do working people have to read, look at, and say what they want? The subject is on my mind this month as I gear up to host a series of Banned Books Week events in Pittsburgh.
Banned Books Week started in 1982 when First Amendment crusader and super librarian Judith Krug was asked by the American Booksellers Association to organize some events highlighting controversial books. The ABA had noticed a sharp increase in the number of challenges made to books in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Krug’s initiative was so successful that Banned Books Week is still going strong at 37 years.
While it is extremely rare in modern American history for a book to be banned or censored by any branch of the US government, organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) track the hundreds of challenges that individual citizens—frequently in their role as parents—make to public libraries, school libraries, and books included in a particular K-12 curriculum. A typical case is the most recent challenge to the Harry Potter series at a Catholic school in Tennessee. The popular books were removed from Nashville’s St. Edward Catholic School library because the school’s priest claimed that they encouraged children to cast evil spells. You can see the most frequently challenged books of 2018 here.
A quick perusal of the ALA Banned Books site shows that books featuring working-class characters and/or politically left/radical messages frequently find their way onto the banned and challenged list. This is because, as banned book scholar Emily Knox has argued, “banned books are diverse books.” Popular books by and/or about women, people of color, LGBTQ and working-class people are more at risk of being challenged and banned.
Possibly the most famous case of book banning in American history involves involved John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath—the pitiful story about a family of “Okies” displaced by the 1930s Dustbowl who migrated to Kern County, CA to work in the orchards. In 1939, despite the fact that Grapes of Wrath was a best seller, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to ban the novel from the county’s libraries and schools. An intrepid librarian, Gretchen Knief, tried to fight the ban. Though she failed, her efforts resulted in the creation of a Library Bill of Rights which has protected many other books from a similar fate.More ...