One of the few pleasures I’ve found during the pandemic is the time to actually read books — not that I didn’t read them before. It’s just that with fewer distractions and social obligations, I actually had the luxury of time-uninterrupted!
I read two great works on pandemics, one by Laurie Garrett and the other by John M. Barry, both amazing science writers, then the wonderful history of Los Angeles in the 1960s by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener was an insightful walk through the history of L.A. that I lived through or experienced first-hand. Then I went on a binge reading through many of the tell-all titles on the fall of Donald Trump, sort of a nightmare before Christmas, the grift that keeps on grifting.
However, the real showstopper for me was a novel banned by a Virginia school district, Beloved by Toni Morrison (1931-2019). Now, I’ve heard of Morrison as a talented writer before, but on closer examination, I discovered that she is one of the most celebrated authors of our time. In addition to writing plays and children’s books, her novels have earned her countless prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
As the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison’s work has inspired a generation of writers to follow in her footsteps, so I was surprised that Beloved could possibly be banned. Well, I guess that it places her in good company with some of the best, like John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, who by the way are still on the banned list. What this novel provides us today is much like what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did in 1852 as an anti-slavery novel.
Both are set in pre-Civil War America, but what Morrison tells in Beloved is the fictionalized version of a true story that made national headlines back in the day of a runaway slave woman who upon being recaptured by a slave posse does the unthinkable. She murders her children rather than have them returned into slavery.
Sethe is a mother of three, haunted by her horrific slavery past and her desperate actions for freedom. As a result, her home is haunted by a furious poltergeist, which drives away her two sons.
Morrison is such a compelling and creative storyteller that the mystery of how such a murderous act is revealed comes in layers. Such a deeply moving tale laced with magic realism or Negro spiritualism could only be told by a woman of color with Morrison’s talents.
I could hardly stop reading it, and neither could Oprah Winfrey, who made and starred in a movie version in 1998 with Danny Glover. You can find it on Netflix if you must, but as usual the book is more rather than less. However, I intend to give a few copies as presents.
So, in recognition of all things banned or censored these days, I suggest that you visit your local independent bookseller this season and check out the Top 10 most banned books. Banned Books Week 2021 is an annual event sponsored by a coalition of librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas. The theme of this year’s event was “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
Below is the American Library Association’s Top 10 list of banned books.
George by Alex Gino. Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community.”
Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Banned and challenged because of the author’s public statements and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people.
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint, it was claimed to be biased against male students, and it included rape and profanity.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the author.
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes and their negative effect on students.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Challenged for profanity and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message.
If you are a schoolteacher, librarian, or professor, do consider supporting American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom in partnership with the Banned Books Week Coalition. For questions concerning the annual Banned Books Week, contact Coordinator@BannedBooksWeek.org.
A version of this story originally appeared in Random Lengths News.
James Preston Allen, founding publisher of the Los Angeles Harbor Area’s leading independent newspaper (1979 to present), is a journalist, visionary, artist, and activist.