Reading ‘contraband’

A bookworm writes about the beauty within banned books and how she found herself in them.

There has always been something thrilling about reading contested books, their subject matter scalded by controversy, especially when I was a teenager.

Maybe the librarian didn’t see it, or the Barnes & Noble cashier didn’t realize it, but when I got my hands on a book that a in American schools, it felt like smuggling home a kind of societal contraband. It was like participating in a tradition of literary rebellion.

Every year since 1982, a coalition of organizers designate one full week as Banned Books Week — “celebrating the freedom to read,” according to the campaign website. The theme for this year’s week-long celebration, which started on Sunday, is “Banning Books Silences Stories.” The purpose of the week is to promote readership and denounce institutions that ban certain literature from their spaces.

Because controversy draws an audience, banning books from school curricula often produces counterproductive results. And yet, it’s still happening.

One of my favorite novels was challenged and banned from high schools across the nation when it first came out in 1970. And it has faced a consistent circle of opponents ever since. 

The book is Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” a remarkable novel about an 11-year-old Black girl named Pecola Breedlove.

In fact, just this year, a school in Texas challenged the book. And one in North Carolina removed it on the basis of sexual and controversial content. The novel has even been accused of having “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.”

My school district didn’t shy away from reading novels weighed down by the perils of the nebulous place our teachers called “the real world.” We read banned books like “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon as part of the honors curriculum and summer reading. Our treatment of “The Bluest Eye” was no different.

An impoverished resident of Ohio, a victim of incestuous sexual abuse and a pariah at her elementary school, Breedlove longs for blue eyes because she is convinced that they will offer her a brighter, whiter outlook on her life’s anguish.

She deludes herself into thinking she can achieve this wish and conflates her blackness with ugliness and agony, framing it as the origin of all of her trouble. 

These are unsettling topics to discuss at any grade level or age. But that doesn’t mean we should just ban the books and refuse to engage with them altogether.

At the end of the novel, Morrison writes, “A little Black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment.”

In our 11th-grade classroom, it was up to us to dissect the “horror” of Breedlove’s impossible longing. It was not just our responsibility as good English students, but students of the world.

And what world could persuade a Black girl to devalue her own personhood so fiercely, to the point of sacrificing her sanity?

When I got used to the rebellious luster of reading a banned book like “The Bluest Eye,” I began to ponder the issues it tackled like racism and abuse that were heartbreaking at their core.

Five years after reading “The Bluest Eye,” so much of the reading experience has stayed with me, settling into the folds of adulthood as I’ve grown up as a Black woman.

When I finished the book, I wrote a research paper on it that analyzed how racism infiltrates standards of beauty. 

I wrote about a particular passage from the book that offered a portrait of Black girls who didn’t detest their blackness as adamantly as Breedlove did, but still cloaked themselves in a layer of self-disdain; Black girls who “when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.”

Although I didn’t want to, I recognized parts of myself in that description. Morrison exposed some of my own anxieties. But I didn’t want to worry about physical features like full lips and coarse hair announcing my blackness. I wanted to be at peace with them. 

I’ve come to realize that when people attempt to silence stories, they inadvertently amplify them. Readers will suddenly want to know why people have tried to stifle a certain narrative. And upon discovering the reasons, those who advocate for the freedom to read will find themselves with a new defendant. Hordes of new readers and supporters accumulate.

Every now and then, someone will declare that literature doesn’t change nations, or people or anything — arguing that literature is unimportant, or worse, dead. 

But to me, the persistent effort to ban books seems to originate from a fear of upheaval, discomfort or more generally, a refusal of change. Book banning is an acknowledgment — albeit a fearful one —  that literature is power. 

It certainly had the power to change me.

And here in 2018, we should ensure that literature is a power to which no American is denied access.

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