“We knew the stories—that they will gas us and throw us in the ovens. This was 1944…We knew everything. And here we were.”
- Art Spiegelman, Maus, banned by the McMinn County, TN school board in January 2021
I remember getting caught in study hall in the seventh grade reading Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller. The dog-eared copy had been secretly making the rounds amongst our English literature class. At recess or between classes, we’d read each other passages out of it, like dares to one another. The words made us blush and could barely be spoken above a whisper. We knew we were reading something scandalous and that only fueled our interest even more. For many of us, in that still-innocent time of the late 80s, it was the first real exposure to the erotic and explicit we’d ever encountered.
I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. (From Henry Miller’s, Tropic of Cancer, banned in the USA in 1934)
A circus followed. The principal, the school board, a red-faced superintendent screaming about indecency and the insidious corruption of innocence. And my father, a tenured college professor, furious in the fray, a razor-sharp voice cutting through the noise: How dare any of you punish my child for reading?
“What do we lose when we start dictating what can and cannot be read?” He argued. “What creative urges and literary curiosity do we bury under conformity to hollow rhetoric? Who are we to decide, not only what voices we chose to hear, but when and how we hear them? You see scandal. You see corruption. I see voices outside the bubble, crying out to be heard, risking it all to put pen to paper on subjects most of us will never understand. You are not only forbidding content here, you are taking away a reader’s right to choose for themselves what worlds they wish to explore. Sanitize this bubble all you want, but these children will discover the world outside. They will discover worlds of their own.”
Emboldened by this battle, inspired by my father and the countless other parents who went to bat for us over that single dog-eared volume, I wrote a book report on the D.H. Lawrence classic, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. (From D.H. Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banned in the USA in 1929)
What came after was the first F I’d ever received in school, the full-throated bellow of my father’s rage at this, another kerfuffle with the principal/superintendent/school board, a contrite reprieve from my English teacher, and the undercurrents of resentment to my defiance that would follow me all the way through to graduation. But what was born that day was a desire to seek out and know these rebels, these anti-establishment icons who frightened the adults, not because they sought to protect us, but because they knew they were powerless once we were truly free.
I learned of cruelty and bullying, as keenly as I learned them on the playground. I saw the larger stain of murder and how easily the rules of society can break down.
Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon's dead body moved out towards the open sea. (From William Golding’s, Lord of the Flies, challenged repeatedly, most notably in Texas in 1974 and South Dakota in 1981)
I learned how powerful and derailing our own illusions can be and how even those who seemingly have everything, can still be hollow in their hearts:
It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby, challenged in South Carolina and Florida in 1987)
Within the pages of these banned books I saw the raw and gritty underbelly of a world I was not supposed to see. It was a world not seen on the sitcoms and game shows and music videos of the day. These were challenges to the American dream, challenges to the status quo. They dared me to think, to stretch and to grow. I was a malcontent, dreaming among the rye.
Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry. (From J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye, originally banned in 1960 in Oklahoma and has since been banned numerous times—it is one of the most challenged books in America)
Sexuality. Gender. Obscenity. Common threads among the books at the top of the forbidden lists. But two larger recurring themes rose to the surface, glaring and impossible to ignore. The first, the true face of racism, bigotry, and hatred; harsh realities that I and my classmates could scarcely fathom. Far removed from our reality, these truths were reality for countless others.
From religion being used to bludgeon “the other”:
Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another... There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results. (From Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird, originally challenged in Minnesota in 1977—it has been challenged or removed numerous times since then)
To what it takes to unearth the final defiant cry of NO MORE to physical and sexual abuse:
Until you do right by me, I say, everything you even dream about will fail.
(From Alice Walker’s, The Color Purple, banned in Pennsylvania in 1992—it has been removed and challenged multiple times)