Banned Books Week 2015

Unlike Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian which is often banned due to its content (indeed, it was the most banned book in 2014), Alexie’s Ten Little Indians and Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven were pulled from classrooms in Tucson, Arizona under “H.B. 2281.” 

The Tucson law states:

THE LEGISLATURE FINDS AND DECLARES THAT PUBLIC SCHOOL PUPILS SHOULD BE TAUGHT TO TREAT AND VALUE EACH OTHER AS INDIVIDUALS AND NOT BE TAUGHT TO RESENT OR HATE OTHER RACES OR CLASSES OF PEOPLE…

A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR CHARTER SCHOOL IN THIS STATE SHALL NOT INCLUDE IN ITS PROGRAM OF INSTRUCTION ANY COURSES OR CLASSES THAT INCLUDE ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:

1. PROMOTE THE OVERTHROW OF THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.

2. PROMOTE RESENTMENT TOWARD A RACE OR CLASS OF PEOPLE.

3. ARE DESIGNED PRIMARILY FOR PUPILS OF A PARTICULAR ETHNIC GROUP.

4. ADVOCATE ETHNIC SOLIDARITY INSTEAD OF THE TREATMENT OF PUPILS AS INDIVIDUALS.

There’s no list of titles available because they’re not banned books.  Technically they are “confiscated classroom materials,” so apart from 7 titles explicitly banned as part of a Mexican-American studies program, there’s no way of knowing exactly what has been boxed up and removed – in some cases right in front of students.  You have to comb blogs to find that Alexie’s titles are part of the banned books confiscated materials, along with Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, Jimmy Santiago Baca’s Black Mesa Poems, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live From Death Row, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and Luis Alberto Urreas’ The Devil’s Highway

Hispanics and Latinos make up 17% of the US population, but 41% of Tuscon’s population.  Native Americans make up 2% of the US population but 3% of the population of Tuscon – some 15,000 (I’m assuming based on the locale) Apache, Hopi, Maricopa, Navajo, Papago, Pima, Yavapai, and Yuma.  They are Southeastern nations.  Each of them is different.  Each of them is similar.  Sherman Alexie is Spokane, from the Northwest.  Yet I guarantee they will find more of themselves – and therefore more love and understanding of the written word, and the importance of literature historically and in their own lives – in Alexie’s work than they’ll find in the whole of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Vonnegut that they’re currently being taught.

The saddest thing is that this isn’t the result of a hatred of people of color, it’s the result of a fundamental belief held by many white people; that if America, as a culture, stopped dwelling on the sins of the past and just lived in the present, that people of color would be much better off.  The only reason (this thinking goes) that people of color struggle so hard in America is because they’ve been told, and taught, that being a person of color in America is a struggle.  To put it bluntly, people of color would be successful if they’d stop feeling sorry for themselves.

I’ve seen this in self-published SciFi premises – What if a city existed where no one was taught about slavery? – and I’ve heard it directly from people’s mouths.  It’s bullshit, of course, but it’s well-meaning bullshit.  Students in Tuscon are victims of a sociological experiment.

Unfortunately, there is no blank slate.  People of color in America are born into a world where our experience is devalued, ignored, or refuted from day one.  Apart from the bubble of our own families, we seldom see our experiences reflected in American culture.  This leads to a strong disconnection, one which we often blame on some internal defect we can’t identify.  Reading the history of how we got to now explains a lot of it, but there is nothing like opening a book and seeing these amorphous thoughts and feelings brought to life in a character who looks, thinks, and lives like us.

History gives the facts; literature speaks the truth.

And the truth needs to be heard.

Tuscon Alexie

A student protests H.B. 2281 in Tuscon.

Donate to American Booksellers for Free Expression.

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