Efforts to ban books are accelerating in Louisiana as well as all across the nation. According to a new report from the American Library Association, there have been “an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books,” more than any time in recent memory.
I have been a publisher in Louisiana for 20 years and I have never witnessed the number of efforts in the past to ban what both children and adults can read in the Bayou State like we are seeing today. It’s ironic that this very week, Louisiana should be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Banned Books Week. Instead, catalogers are under assault for the books they are placing on library shelfs across the state.
There is nothing new in local efforts to ban certain books in Louisiana. Some of America’s classic novels have been banned off and on for many years. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a timeless novel of the law and race relations in the South, is one of my favorites that I have read and reread, as well as urging family members to read. This wonderful book was banned by the Plaquemine Parish School Board back in 2000. Superintendent Jim Hoyle, said he’d removed the book — and the 1962 movie based on it — from district libraries “because some parents thought it contained ‘some objectionable words.’”
Other books banned in Louisiana include Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Brave New World, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, America’s first African-American poet laureate, “The Great Gatsby,” “Fahrenheit 451” and J.D. Salinger’s classic, “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve read and enjoyed them all.
Particularly enjoyable was “A Lesson Before Dying”, by Ernest J. Gaines, whose writings have been taught in college classrooms and translated into numerous languages. He spent his life writing in his Louisiana home of New Roads, and we became friends in his later years.
The issue of book banning has become a front and center issue recently in Louisiana. The Lafayette school board has appointed a committee of three who have met in secret to recommend books that are to be kept off library shelfs. In Livingston Parish, lawsuits are flying and protesters are being arrested over library books. So what has brought on this current controversy in a number of Louisiana Parishes?
In the past, protests of inappropriate books have come from local citizens who raised questions at school board meetings and at libraries as parents objected to books they felt were inappropriate. Today, a number of conservative national groups are protesting nationwide. Governors in a number of states are instituting new laws and regulations that lead to book banning. Simply put, books on library shelves are becoming enmeshed in politics.
Are there reasons to keep books of certain subjects off library shelves? Of course. As a parent and grandparent, I would not want sexually explicit or violent material available to young students. Important books containing raw subject matter could be placed in an older student or adult section. There should be established procedures that are followed before summarily removing books from shelves, to be enforced by librarians, who are subject to local school board or parish library board oversight.
The key is to keep book choices under local control. We do not need national standards for what we can and cannot read. Books of all subjects offer us a free expression of ideas that have served as a foundation of American democracy. We should not allow a political and cultural war that allows using our schools and libraries as a battleground.
There is a good reason why we have a first amendment in America. Censorship becomes a slippery slope that can undermine our basic freedoms. We should walk with caution when banning books are involved.
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownusa.com.