In a recent column in USA Today Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online, skewered Banned Books Week as being overhyped. He backed up his belief stating that last year there were a mere 348 challenges to books in school libraries and classrooms. He defined a “banned book” as one “that has been removed from a public library or school’s shelves or reading list due to pressure from someone who isn’t a librarian or teacher.” And, that’s the problem. Challenges are usually the result of a minority of one, an offended parent or one with his/her own social agenda. In a democracy one person doesn’t speak for a school or an entire community.
I taught for thirty years and felt the hand of censors more than once. I wrote plays that my students would perform. The students wrote poems which became the lyrics for songs. A professional composer was hired to write contemporary music using my student’s lyrics. I produced five plays without a problem.
My last play, dealing with runaways, ran afoul of the head of the Home & School Association (yes, a minority of one, but a powerful force in the school). In one song dealing with the consequences of running away the word “sex” is used, which she objected to. There were ninety students involved with the play. All had had scripts, including all of the song’s lyrics for months, and not one parent complained (and more than one parent told me their child sang the songs so often it drove them a bit mad. So, the parents weren’t clueless as to the lyrics of the songs.). But when someone not involved with the play was offended and went to the principal the entire play was looked at with a fine tooth comb. The offending word had to be removed. And the principal, upon reading the script, found the dialogue of one character to be racist (the percentage of blacks in the school was close to 50% with the total minority percentage closer to sixty or seventy percent). Not one parent of those in the play had found the dialogue offensive. And, ironically, I based the “offending” character on a white custodian who worked at the school. The poor use of grammar wasn’t racial but economic. Poor whites often don’t use what is considered proper grammar. But, my principal (could he have been a closet racist or just ignorant?) seemed to believe that only blacks couldn’t speak the King’s English. So, I had to clean up the dialogue – the script being line-edited by the principal. All because one parent (albeit one with influence) objected to a single word in a song.
Jonah Goldberg would applaud this parent. In his article he feels Banned Book Week “demeans parents and other citizens who take an interest in the schools.” He ignores the fact that all it takes is a single parent to issue a complaint and a book can be removed from a library or school curriculum regardless of the wishes of the majority.
Banned Books Week serves the essential purpose of pointing out that there are books (some classics, others that may not be great works of literature) attacked yearly. Sex education and gays in literature are some of the current hot-button issues, but should we forget that in the fifties and sixties books dealing with racial discrimination and inter-racial marriage were targets? It is up to everyone to be vigilant towards those who would want a book removed due to a personal agenda or prejudice. Overhyped? If anything Banned Book Week doesn’t get the exposure demanded.