Written by author Jewell Parker Rhodes
Banned books are segregation’s kin.
I was born during the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Some tried to put me and my family “in our place.” A “place” that expressed bigotry and fear of my family and of me as an African American girl. Redlining and racism denied credit and mobility and pressed families like mine into ghettos with substandard schools.
Books freed, nurtured, and challenged me. African Americans, having been denied literacy during slavery, have a special affinity for reading and writing as basic civil rights. While there weren’t many diverse books when I was growing up (and there still aren’t enough!), character-driven stories opened new landscapes, new possibilities for living, and deepened my empathy.
Frederick Douglass in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, quotes a slave holder:
“Learning will spoil the best [slave] in the world.” Indeed.
Reading is subversive. Banned books, especially, encourage a non-violent debate about race and justice (To Kill a Mockingbird), about disability and sexuality (Of Mice and Men), about the terrors a lack of diversity engenders (Brave New World), and about how race, class, and gender discrimination can victimize, causing self-hatred and madness (The Bluest Eye).
Reading widely helped me to understand that I, too, had a narrative — that my life could be positioned in opposition to cultural “isms” that devalued difference as integral to humanity, and worse, devalued the common humanity of us all. Reading widely, I was encouraged to write inclusive, celebratory narratives.
Why should anyone decide what I, my children, or my grandchildren can or cannot read? Knowledge is power and a banned book is an attempt to render someone else powerless.
Just as slaves were patronized and their literacy feared, banned books patronize children and suggests (by logical extension) that if they read too much, too widely, then they too are to be feared. Reading will spoil the best child.
Our world is not perfect. The freedom to read is perfect.
Diverse narratives enlighten and empower. The freedom to read promotes a more just and integrated world.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of the Louisiana Girls children’s book trilogy, which includes “Ninth Ward,” “Sugar,” and “Bayou Magic,” as well as six adult novels, two writing guides, and a memoir. Her children’s books have received the Parents’ Choice Foundation Award, the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, and the Jane Addam’s Children’s Book Award, among others. “Towers Falling,” her new middle grade novel, was published in July 2016. Jewell grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a Bachelor of Arts in drama criticism, a Master of Arts in English, and a Doctor of Arts in English (creative writing) from Carnegie Mellon University. Jewell is the artistic director and Piper Endowed Chair at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.