Conflicting Visions?

Banned Books Week

By: guest blogger Reverend Emily Gage

Sermon delivered by Minister of Faith Development Rev. Emily Gage on September 23, 2018.
“Often the most challenged books are the stories that need to be heard the most,”
they muse on
Here are my reflections on banned books week, the silencing of stories
and why what we share and how we listen matters. 

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The Jewish High Holy days have recently passed and today begins another type of holy day or Holy Week, actually, although this one is strictly secular in its origins. It doesn’t always get a lot of press, but it is celebrated by librarians, booksellers, and bibliophiles alike. Today marks the beginning of Banned Books week. That’s banned (B-A-N-N-E-D) books, not band (B-A-N-D) books. (Sorry to those of you who might have been hoping I was going to pull out a big brass instrument.) Banned Books week is, in short, a celebration of the freedom to read. Or, more clearly spelled out, the freedom to read whatever it is we want to read.

We Unitarian Universalists uphold the quest for truth as our sacrament, and talk about the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We can trace our history back hundreds of years, always able to point to the use of reason as a tool for understanding the world, an openness to sources of meaning to which we may lend our own powers of discernment and glean wisdom. In short, the celebration of the freedom to read whatever it is we want to read is, religiously speaking, right up our alley.

We don’t always speak of it this way, but as Unitarian Universalists, we have a particular vision when it comes to intellectual freedom. We love ideas, we are open to new truths and learning, and we understand that our beliefs are ever evolving. We welcome new and more information. This is generally speaking, of course. It’s not always easy to do, and so we do this imperfectly–sometimes we struggle with having to change our perspective and open ourselves to new stories–but we do agree on principle that it’s a good principle.

This will not be a news flash: not everyone holds such a vision. There are those who are not open to hearing stories from diverse sources; there are those who would do what they can to stop those stories from being told, for all sorts of reasons. There are those who don’t wish to broaden their understanding beyond their own view. And lest we be too judgmental, I would venture to say that we–inside, each of us–sometimes have those tendencies ourselves. We will–or at least, I will–find myself saying, on occasion “but that’s the way we’ve always done it”; not believing that there might be a different or better way OR even that the way that we always have done it is some manifestation of unexamined white supremacy culture. As a parent, I will sometimes worry about protecting my son from some difficult reality, and so I will choose not to share as much information as I might.

Still, I hold tight to the former vision, and use it to guide me and prod myself towards greater understanding of this world and all who are in it.

Banned Books week began in 1982, and since then, there have been all sorts of annual events in bookstores and libraries celebrating books that have been challenged or banned. The American Library Association’s Offices for Intellectual Freedom has been collecting data on banned books (or banned book attempts) since 1990, detailing the various books and reasons various groups and individuals wish to have these books removed from circulation. For the past 18 years or so, the Office for Intellectual Freedom has compiled a top ten list of the books most often challenged in any particular year.

There were 416 reports of challenged books in 2017; those reports come from the media reports and voluntary challenge reports; it is likely that many–or even most challenges–go unreported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom. These are books mostly parents, and some patrons and administrators, request to be removed from curricula or libraries. They are mostly local or district wide challenges. From those reports comes the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2017. When I looked up this list, it turned out that I had, without realizing it, read 9 of the 10 books. (Some of them–it turns out–I’ve even shared with the congregation.)

Perhaps you’re wondering what books are on this list, and why they were banned or challenged. Perhaps you are wondering which ones you, too, have read.

Most of the books on the list are fairly recent, but #7 is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which has, no doubt, made many top ten such lists since their inception. It was challenged and banned because of violence and use of the n word.

A couple of the books, both #10 I Am Jazz, written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings and #5 George by Alex Gino were challenged because they deal with gender identity. I Am Jazz is a picture book of a true first hand story of a young transgender kid and her journey to be who she is. George is a chapter book for elementary age students where the main character is also transgender.

#3 Is Drama, a graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier, also includes BLGT characters, and for that, it was banned.

#9 is And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole–a book I have read for Story for All ages–was banned because it features a same sex relationship. Now let me just say, that it is based on a true story of a same sex relationship between penguins. Between penguins, people. Two male penguins that, as a couple, become parents of a penguin baby.

Also, dealing with similar issues, #6 Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth was banned because it addresses sex education and “is believed to lead children to have sex or ask questions about sex”.

I want you to know that these five books–and many others like them–are precisely the kinds of books that we have as resources for our OWL–Our Whole Lives values based sexuality education program for our first and fifth graders. We celebrate and affirm the entire sexual orientation spectrum–homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual; we celebrate and affirm all gender identities and expressions. We believe that sharing information about sexuality helps our kids make more informed decisions and that their questions should be answered.

There are four remaining books on that list; #4 The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini was banned because it includes sexual violence and was thought to ‘lead to terrorism’ and ‘promote Islam’. (It’s a story of a friendship set in Afghanistan.) #1 Thirteen Reasons Why written by Jay Asher was challenged and banned because it discusses suicide (this is the one book I haven’t read on the list), #2 The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was challenged consistently since 2007 for “Acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, and this year particularly because of ‘profanity’ and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.” I particularly loved this Sherman Alexie book, the contemporary story of a Native American boy attending an all white school off the reservation. And finally, #8 on this list is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which is the story of young African American girl who witnesses the shooting death of her friend at a routine traffic stop. This book was banned because someone considered it “pervasively vulgar” and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.

I need to tell you that The Hate U Give was absolutely transformative to me. It deals with real issues right now–racial profiling, police brutality, institutional racism, and put me inside the experiences of Starr, the main character, who lives in an mostly impoverished African American neighborhood with her loving family and attends an almost exclusively white prep school. It gave me a whole new perspective on a lot of different things by inviting me into someone else’s reality. It’s very well done, and even while it is has received all kinds of challenges, it has also received numerous book awards. It is also being made into a movie, which will be released next month. I will say, though, what I always say: Read the book before you go see the movie.

I am struck by a particular phrase that was used in describing the challenges of one of these books: it was banned because “it acknowledges issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality.” And this is the key, isn’t it? These books acknowledge that something exists that we may not like, or find frightening, or may challenge us. It might lead us to conclude that the world is different that we thought it is. It might cause us to have to question things we thought to be true: people get what they deserve. You are either a boy or a girl. Police officers always protect people. People (and penguins) are exclusively heterosexual.

It seems ironic to me that the challenges to The Hate U Give say that it is pervasively vulgar. Which I take to mean that those challenging that book couldn’t even bear to name racial profiling or the institutional legacy of slavery or the lack of opportunity in certain communities as things that are acknowledged in these books. I guess the logic runs that “If we keep people from reading these books, we can keep these truths from existing.” Or at least being known by a wider audience.

You’ll notice, of course, that not one of these banned books centers the narrative of a straight white cisgender male.

I was struck by another sentence, this one somewhere on the website

“Often the most challenged books are the stories that need to be heard the most.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. We need to hear the stories in these banned books–the stories of our transgender siblings, of our BLGTQ kin, of African American and Native American communities, of our Muslim friends, of those who have mental illness. We need to hear the experiences that help name some of the oppressions that we have created and what they mean, we need to see new ways of being and doing. We need to have our assumptions questioned. We need to understand that our way is not the only way, that our perspectives are not the only perspectives.

These are not just stories, these are lives that are at stake.

The theme for this year Banned Books week is this: Banning Books Silences Stories. Banning Books silences stories. I couldn’t think of a slogan that is any more appropriate for this time in these United States.

Banning Books Silences Stories

Leave it to the librarians to cut to the heart of the matter.

It’s a coincidence that Banned Books week, a time set aside to bring attention to censorship, is happening at the exact same moment that a woman has brought forth a story about a Supreme Court nominee. But it’s the same exact battle.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford has come forward with an accusation of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And it turns out that there are plenty of people who don’t want to hear this story. At all. In the time that she’s come forward with this story, we’ve seen people trying to discredit her because she hasn’t told the story before, or people passing it off as a youthful indiscretion–you know, “boys will be boys”, or saying that boys’ brains are not developed enough at 17 to make good decisions, or decreeing that this story has to be told in a particular way at a particular time because there’s an emergency deadline to be met.

I could go on and on.

The incredible challenge with which this story has been met is not really because people don’t believe it. (I think many suspect or know that it is true.) But if we fully acknowledge and listen to this story–really listen–then it means that the world in which we operate and hold power is not the world that we thought we were in. An entire power structure is at stake. A culture of toxic masculinity is at stake. Ideas are at stake. Ideas like being a white straight cisgender man with connections and wealth can get you out of the consequences of doing something truly horrible, whenever it was.

I’m fine with throwing most of that out the window, myself.

On the way to writing this sermon, I starting talking with someone about where I thought I was headed. “Of course, I said, also I’ve been thinking about Dr. Ford sharing her story and the whole Kavanaugh nomination and the silencing and…” We talked for a little, and then the person with whom I was talking wondered out loud: “Does it matter? Does it matter that she is telling this story?”

Does it matter? Somehow caught off guard by this question, I didn’t know how to reply. Later, when I was alone again in my office, I started to cry. Does it matter? Because sometimes it sure seems like it doesn’t. Sometimes it feels like everything is stacked against a story being heard, even if it is told over and over again. And still again. Sometimes it seems like the stories pile up, one on top of the the other, mounting evidence of something being terribly wrong, and those stories don’t seem to be making a difference. Does. it. matter?

On occasion I have to describe Unitarian Universalism in a few words or less, and I always turn to: we preach love, not fear. Love, not fear.

There’s a lot packed into those three words. So much of what is behind silencing stories is fear. Fear of change. Fear of difference. Fear of loss. Fear keeps us locked inside ourselves, keeps us from making connections, keeps us from sharing our truths and being who we are with integrity.

When we hold love at the center, we reach out in openness and courage; we share our stories, we look beyond ourselves, we know that our truths help shape the world. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t afraid; only that we can see and work through that fear as we love.

The Rev. David Blanchard has this great piece called A Letter from Life that he wrote to his daughters, which I have shared as a reading before. He writes: “You count in the greater scheme of things, but even I don’t know what it is you will give to the world you’ve been born into. That’s something you’ll need to figure out. You’ll get some clues from me, and your parents, and those who love you, but you are the ones who will decide to what dark corners of the world you’ll bring light and love. You don’t have to be Jesus, or Buddha, or Mother Theresa. You just have to be you.

At times, just being you will create problems. It’s a trial and error process. There will be people who would prefer that you were ‘them’ instead of ‘you’, and that gets confusing.”

Part of that being you is sharing your stories. All of them–the easy ones, and the ones which make you feel vulnerable and scared. Each of can probably remember a time in which we shared one of those stories and whoever was listening (or not truly listening) to us hurt us in their response. We can remember what that felt like. Each of us can probably remember a time which we shared one of those stories and someone was truly listening to us. With love. And took that story in their hearts and built a connection with us, and helped make the world a little more like the world we want it to be. Where all the stories of who we are matter and are valued and help shape the way we live and cast a vision for our world.

And because we know what it feels like to be heard with love, it’s our call to be out there not only sharing our stories, but listening to them with love too. We preach love, not fear.

Right now, there are all kinds of loud voices telling Dr. Blasey Ford that we don’t want to hear her story. And there are also all kinds of voices out there saying: We believe you. We are grateful to you for telling your story. The same thing happened to me. You are not alone. We are with you.

So yeah. It matters. It matters. Our stories matter. Our listening matters. Every time we reach out in love, it tilts us towards the good. It matters.

Last Saturday night, our family was shopping at Lowe’s. (This gives you an inside glimpse into the exciting life of a minister.) My wife and I are white, and we have an African American son. I was standing with Paul amidst the bathroom tile, and a young African American man came up to us, and said, “Excuse me, excuse me–Can I ask you something?” I thought maybe he thought I worked there, or I had taken his cart. But he said, “Are you his mother?” “Yes,” I said. Well, then he started talking about how happy he was to see us together, and that he had been adopted, and had a white mom, too, and that some day my son was going to tell me how happy he was that he was my son, and it was such a great thing. And on and on. Tears came to my eyes, of course, and I thanked him profusely for sharing his story with us.

Because he didn’t have to do that. But he did. And it was such a gift to our family.

There’s a little more love in the world because of that interaction.

It’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. Get out there and celebrate the freedom to read whatever it is you want to read. Choose something that will help you expand your horizons, see life in a new way, build connections with someone who may seem totally different from you.

More importantly, share your stories of who you are, and open your heart and mind wide to listen to the stories all around you. It matters.

It matters. Because every moment, with every choice we make, we are casting a vision of the world we want to be in.

A world not of isolation, but of connection.

A world not of silence, but speaking out.

A world not of fear, but of love.

And so may it always be.

Rev. Emily GageRev. Emily Gage has served as Minister of Faith Development of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park, IL since 2008. She is a voracious reader, and has always had many banned books on her shelves. She lives with her wife and son in Oak Park.

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