People For the American Way Foundation is a sponsor of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read and an opportunity for readers, authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians and First Amendment advocates to call for continued vigilance against efforts to censor our words, thoughts, and opinions.
The theme for Banned Books Week 2019—which runs September 22-28—is “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark. Keep the Light On.” Previous Banned Books Week themes have focused on challenged work written for young adults and works written by diverse authors.
The American Library Association, a leader of the Banned Books Week coalition, releases an annual list of most challenged books from U.S. schools and libraries. Acclaimed author Toni Morrison, who died in August, does not appear on this year’s list, but her books Beloved and The Bluest Eye have appeared repeatedly on the most-challenged list. In a tribute published after her death, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, another member of the Banned Books Week Coalition, called Morrison the “patron saint of banned books and their readers.”
There are many ways you can participate in Banned Books Week and defend the freedom to read. Here are a few:
- Use Banned Book Weeks web banners and graphics on your Facebook and Twitter accounts
- Follow and share information from @BannedBooksWeek
- Write about your favorite banned book online or in an op-ed or letter to the editor of your local newspaper
- Take part in the Stand for the Banned Virtual Read-out by filming yourself reading a short excerpt (less than three minutes) from your favorite banned book. Videos are being featured on the Banned Books Week YouTube channel. See recent years’ “top 10” lists from the ALA as well as a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books during the 1990s. The National Coalition of Teachers of English has also published a list of books challenged between 2002 and 2018.
- Join a Banned Books Week event at your local library—and check out special events being held across the country and beyond. In 2017, the United Kingdom’s Index on Censorship joined the Banned Books Week coalition for the first time.
Among the 11 books on the most-challenged list compiled by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom for 2018 is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Another, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, deals with the aftermath of a police shooting and was banned and challenged for profanity, drug use and sexual references and for being deemed “anti-cop.”
“Almost half of the books on the Top 11 this year (including This Day in June) were banned or challenged because they contained LGBTQ+ content,” challenged author Gayle Pitman said in a Banned Books Coalition press release earlier this year. “That is incredibly disturbing to me. Whether it involves removing a book from a shelf or burning a book in a trash can, all of these are attempts to erase, silence, and destroy our communities. This is an opportunity for all of us to stand up for the freedom to read, as well as for the right to see ourselves reflected in books and for our communities to exist without oppression.”
People For the American Way Foundation’s “Book Wars” report, which was published a few years ago, included this section on the impact of censorship challenges:
While individual challenges don’t always succeed in removing a book from a school curriculum or forcing a textbook publisher to alter its content, they can have far-reaching effects. Attacks on ethnic studies curricula or challenges to books that deal frankly with the lives and histories of marginalized communities can have divisive results beyond their original goals. For example, organizing a protest of a textbook that supposedly “promotes jihad” may not accomplish its stated goal, but might still succeed in stoking fear and resentment against Muslim Americans in that community.
Attacks on multicultural curricula in schools – like Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies classes – are joined by continuing efforts to ban books that acknowledge gay and lesbian families, teach about world religions, or deal frankly with the history of race in America. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, People For the American Way Foundation tracked challenges to books and curricula that included frank discussions of sexuality, race, and the less palatable truths of American history. In the 2000s, challenges focused also on books accused of promoting the “occult” or “undermining” Christianity, leading the Harry Potter series to top the American Library Association’s list of the most challenged books of the decade.
One common theme among many challenged books is their frank portrayals of the experiences of marginalized people. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye are unflinching explorations of being a Black woman in America. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles a Native American teenager’s experiences living in an impoverished reservation, while going to school in a wealthy nearby town. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explores African-American identity in the mid-20th century. Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is a landmark piece of Chicano literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian tale about the oppression of women. Marjane Satrapi’s renowned graphic novel Persepolis, is about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
People For the American Way Foundation and its advocacy affiliate have a long record of resisting censorship and defending freedom of expression for artists, writers, and activists—and the freedom of students to read and learn. Among PFAW Foundation’s earliest projects was a series of ads promoting “freedom of thought, the right to have and express your own opinions.” Produced by Norman Lear and directed by the late Jonathan Demme, the ads featured recognizable names like Muhammad Ali, Carol Burnett, and Goldie Hawn, along with non-celebrities talking about their taste in music, sports and eggs.
For more than 30 years, People For the American Way Foundation and our affiliate, People For the American Way, have fought efforts to ban books and to insert right-wing ideology into public school curricula. Here are some highlights of our three decades of fighting censorship in schools:
- 1982: PFAW Foundation fights attempts by Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly to censor public school textbooks across the country. PFAW Foundation also helps to move Texas toward higher standards for public school textbooks, resulting in improvements felt across the nation.
- 1985: PFAW Foundation’s “Consumer Guide to Biology Textbooks” reveals that half of high school biology textbooks do not adequately cover the theory of evolution and one-sixth do not mention it at all.
- 1990: PFAW Foundation battles censorship attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts led by right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and establishes “artsave” to help artists and organizations across America resist censorship threats.
- 1993: PFAW battles Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and other groups under the Radical Right banner in their attempts to censor public school curricula through local school board takeovers from New York to Colorado.
- 1996: PFAW Foundation launches the “Good Schools” coalition to oppose Christian Coalition attempts to take over the New York City school board.
- 1997: PFAW Foundation’s lawsuit on behalf of citizens in Lee County, Florida, halts the school board’s unconstitutional attempt to use the Bible as a history textbook in public schools.
- 2000: PFAW Foundation turns the national spotlight on the unconstitutionality of teaching Creationism as science in public schools by sponsoring “Origins,” a theater performance at the University of Kansas, broadcast live over Kansas television and radio.
- 2010: PFAW Foundation investigates new attempts to insert creationism and faulty history lessons into Texas textbooks, which could imperil the education of students across the nation. A PFAW Foundation report helps to elevate the issue to the national level.
- 2013: Working with the Texas Freedom Network, PFAW Foundation delivers 300,000 petitions to the Texas State Board of Education urging it to improve science textbooks that properly teach the theory of evolution. The board ultimately approves accurate books, a victory for students throughout the state and country.
- 2013: The Randolph County, North Carolina, board of education voted to reverse its decision to ban Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man from school libraries after PFAW Foundation, the American Library Association, the Kids’ Right to Read Project and others urged the board to reconsider.
- 2014: The Watauga County school board narrowly voted to uphold the teaching of Isabel Allende’s acclaimed “The House of the Spirits,” after the author and many supporters, including People For the American Way Foundation, waged a campaign against censorship of the book.
Beyond the Banned Books Week activities mentioned above, here are some things you can do to fight censorship in your community:
- Attend school board meetings. School boards and other school decision-makers need to hear from parents, students, and community members who oppose censorship. Attend school board meetings, and stay in touch with board members and principals — even when there are no censorship challenges — to let them know that you care about fair, accurate, and inclusive schools.
- Stay informed. If a parent or activist group challenges a book in your community’s school or district, read the book and learn about its author and its history. Then share what you’ve found with fellow community members and the local media. A strong, well-informed argument is always an effective weapon against misinformation and prejudice.
- Make some noise. Start a petition among students and parents in your school or district in support of a challenged book or curriculum, and tell the local media about it. You could also consider holding a protest in favor of the challenged material. In most cases, activists challenging books represent a small fraction of a community; it sends a powerful message when the rest of the community speaks up for its values.
- Look for outside voices. While the most effective arguments against censorship are made by local students and parents, in some cases it can be helpful to bring in outside experts. Consider inviting available authors of challenged works to join a discussion in your community or to send a statement to school leaders. Free speech advocacy groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Library Association, and People For the American Way Foundation can also provide resources and advice on how to fight for free speech in schools.
- Run for office. If you don’t like the way your elected officials handle censorship challenges, consider becoming an elected official yourself! Run for school board or volunteer to serve on a school committee that handles challenges against books.