I came to Toni Morrison’s work later in life than I wish. It wasn’t that I didn’t love books – I took after my mother, who consumed books with such voracious joy that I learned to read by age 4 just to emulate her. I devoured books assigned in my elementary and middle schools, getting lost in the worlds created by Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, and John Steinbeck.
It wasn’t until high school that I picked up “The Bluest Eye,” Morrison’s debut novel. The story of Pecola Breedlove was like nothing I’d ever encountered before. But it wasn’t just the lyrical style of Morrison’s writing, her ability to fluidly tell even the most painful stories in a manner that was simultaneously fantastical and deeply rooted in reality that made her work so unlike the other so-called “classics.” There was something else about her work that made it land in a completely different way: familiarity.
Morrison explained in a television interview why she wrote the book.
“It was a book I wanted to read, and I couldn’t find it anywhere,” Morrison said. “So, I began to write it.”
At the time, she was a recently divorced mother of small children, working in the literary world as a book editor and lecturer. But even in that world, she was left searching. So she wrote.
“I’m a reader,” she said. “And I really wanted a certain kind of experience. I didn’t analyze it terribly much. But I knew that I wanted to read about people like me: people who were Black, and were young, and had lived in the Midwest. And nobody wrote about them – and when they did, they were never center stage in a text. They were always toys, background, scenery.”
Most important, she said, “in this emotional chaos I was in, the whole world took on that view. It was disorderly … . Writing ordered it for me.”
Books are powerful. So much so, they can be deemed a threat, particularly to those who seek to protect their own power. And in the opinion of some, Morrison’s centering of Blackness, power, pain, and truth is too much. That is why “The Bluest Eye,” “Beloved,” and other novels by the author are disappearing from school libraries and curricula. And it’s not just Morrison: All kinds of books that reflect the lived experiences of people of color, or those that center gender and sexual identity, or racism increasingly are being targeted.
Book banning is back.
Banned Books Week is being observed nationwide this week to reclaim the place of books of all kinds in our imaginations and our lives.
The practice, really a power grab, isn’t new. Throughout our history, book banning efforts have sprung up during times of societal change, particularly when the status quo was being challenged. The practice heightened during the turbulent era of the 1960s, but its history is far longer.
Consider David Ruggles, the abolitionist and writer who opened the nation’s first Black bookstore and print shop in New York City in 1834, a time when in parts of the nation, it was illegal for Black people to learn to read.
But at Ruggles’ Bookstore and Reading Room on 1 Cortlandt St., patrons could find abolitionist literature, stationery, and fellowship. Its reading room served as a place where Black people could gain the literary knowledge Ruggles believed was essential. At the time, even in New York, it was prohibited for Black folks to enter public libraries.
The bookstore also served as a print shop for Black writers, where works including the nation’s first Black magazine, Mirror of Liberty, were published. It served as a part of the Underground Railroad. It filled a vital void.
The very power of Ruggles’ work caused its demise. The bookstore was burned down by a White mob, and Ruggles himself faced several attempts on his life.
As often happens, history repeats itself. Racial justice movements in America and beyond rose to a crescendo after the lynching of George Floyd, resulting in greater interest by people of varied backgrounds in combatting racial injustice. A new desire to patronize Black businesses resulted in a boom for Black bookstores. Books on antiracism and social justice shot to the top of bestseller lists.
Then came the backlash. Particularly in school curricula, award-winning books that had once been staples if school libraries are being banned by school boards and administrators. And while the stated goal is to avoid, “offensive,” “inappropriate” or “divisive” topics from classroom instruction, books that tell the stories of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and others whose fights for equality had been receiving increased attention and awareness are usually the ones on the chopping block.
The goal, to borrow a phrase coined by writers Ashley Hope Pérez and Harvey J. Graff, is to achieve a “new illiteracy,” particularly about the lives, history, and experiences of marginalized people.
I didn’t fully realize the void that kind erasure creates until it was filled for me by writers like Morrison and bell hooks and Nikki Giovanni.
But the erasure is the point. During Banned Books Week, The Emancipator highlights the power of the pen, of those who wield it, and the stories they tell.