Staff members of the Steen Library hosted a Banned Books Week Zoom discussion on Sept. 28. The discussion was faculty-led and included five speakers from various SFA departments. The speakers covered various books that have been banned or challenged.
“Banned Books Week is to help bring awareness of the importance of libraries providing access to materials from all viewpoints so students can become critical thinkers,” Jonathan Helmke, library director, said. “This helps them in the short term in terms of their coursework while at SFA, and long-term in terms of their careers and being part of the global community.”
Dr. Court Carney, a professor of history, talked about Richard Wright, who wrote Native Son and Black Boy, two works that get flagged by schools quite often. Published in 1940, Native Son is a novel centered on a Black man named Bigger Thomas who ends up murdering a white woman. Black Boy was his memoir (published in 1945) and looks at his childhood in Mississippi and Tennessee as well as his early writing career and his involvement with the Communist Party. Both of these books have been banned since their publication: Native Son mainly for violence and sexual imagery, and Black Boy for claims of inciting racial animosity and general obscenity. Carney briefly discussed Wright and these books as well as the censoring of Black voices.
“It is always good for students to hear from faculty talking about issues important to their work or life,” Carney said. “But also, of course, it is good for all of us to be reminded of the importance of accessibility to literature, especially literature that dissents from mainstream ideas and perspectives. Accessibility is important. Dissent is important. Protest is important. These are bedrock values that are too often undermined or shouted down or erased. This week is a good chance to contemplate the role of censorship within a nation that tends to pride itself on so many deeply held freedoms.”
Dr. Louise Stoehr, associate professor of modern languages, spoke about May 10, 1933, when German students throughout the country organized a massive burning of books that they didn’t agree with.
“I feel that it’s very dangerous to ban any sort of book,” Stoehr said. “I think in an open Democratic society, we have the right to choose what it is we want to read. I don’t think we need any sort of organization or government telling us what we may and may not read. It’s important to remember what happened in other times and places, and how dangerous it can be when we start to police having access to literature.”
Dr. Joyce Johnston, associate dean in the College of Liberal and Applied Arts, looked at books that weren’t sold in Haiti and Martinique. She spoke about writers Marie Vieux Chauvet, who wrote Love, Anger, Madness and Joseph Zobel, who wrote Black Shack Alley, and why their work wasn’t sold in their countries, Haiti and Martinique, respectively.
“To me, it’s a matter of we should be constantly questioning what we are told is okay and not okay to read,” Johnston said. “I don’t think anyone should accept someone saying, ‘You’re not allowed to read this book.’ We need to question why certain books are censored. Sometimes those questions lead us to far beyond the literature and to very important problems.”
Dr. Michael Martin spoke on “Rediscovering ‘America’ Within the Howl Controversy,” and Dr. Kevin West spoke on “Objections to Hemingway’s novels The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.”
34 people, a mix of students, staff and faculty attendees, registered for the event.
“I am pleased to say that our first annual Steen Library Banned Books Week Teach-In went as well as I could have anticipated,” Nancy Breen, Steen Library student and community engagement event and marketing coordinator, said. “The main goal of the event was to celebrate the right to read and to host an academic discussion that highlighted situations where that right has been challenged or abridged. I hope to be able to put the recording of the event up on the library’s website soon, so that those who were not able to attend live will be able to view it. I am looking forward to hosting this event, or one like it, again next year.”