–A reflection on PPCC’s February events surrounding Toni Morrison
by Stewart Ricker, Staff Writer
PPCC’s English department honored Black History Month and Women’s History Month with a week-long commemoration to American author Toni Morrison. Her work transformed American Literature through her unapologetic examinations of racial identity and the African-American experience.
And like most work that challenges the status quo, Morrison’s prose continually surfaces in times of deep reflection.
Morrison is best known for writing about black identity in the United States, especially among women. She is the author of 11 novels, as well as several children’s books and essay collections.
Her most notable works, however, are some of the most challenged books in American literature. Morrison has been relentlessly criticized for her books, which contain various references to violence, sexual abuse, and themes of cultural racism.
In the 1990s, The Bluest Eye (1970), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987) held spots on the top 100 Most Challenged Books List. The Bluest Eye and Beloved were also on the top 10 Most Challenged Books List in 2006, and later making the list again in 2012 with the former being challenged once more in 2013 and 2014.
The Bluest Eye was challenged again in February, 2020 in California when English teachers at Colton High School were barred from using the book as a part of their curriculum. Despite several students’ and parents’ attempts to speak in favor of the book, the majority of parents complained against the book for its explicit sexual references.
Many of the authors whose works have been challenged and/or banned happen to hold rather prestigious titles. Morrison, for example, was the first African-American woman to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. Harper Lee received a Pulitzer Prize for To Kill A Mockingbird, which was also voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by Library Journal in 1999. Despite these accomplishments, books like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Bluest Eye are still challenged today for the shock that controversial themes present to readers.
In a 1988 interview with Jana Wendt, Morrison discussed the value of being shocked in everyday life and why it is important. Wendt made a comment regarding the underlying racism in America as being a “shocking barbarism,” to which Morrison responded, “It always is shocking. It’s always shocking, and I insist on being shocked. I’m never going to become immune. I think that’s a kind of failure to see so much of it that you die inside. I want to be surprised and shocked every time.”
Some of the most popular reasons for challenging or banning books include references to sex or sexual content, inclusion of LGBTQ+ culture and lifestyle, the author’s own political or religious viewpoints, encouragement of disruptive/uncivil behavior, or promoting lawlessness, gambling, violence and terrorism, criminal allegations against the author, profane/offensive language, references to drugs and alcohol, and addressing themes of suicide, racism, and poverty.
Book banning has been a pertinent issue since the invention of the printing press, according to Warren Epstein, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at PPCC, but it wasn’t until 1982 that the issue was thrust into the limelight when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students’ First Amendment rights were violated when several books were banned from their schools’ libraries.
Since then, students have been creating challenge lists each year directed at their schools and libraries for removing several books from their shelves — many of which are well-known classics that have been at the forefront of the United States educational system for years —while several parents, protesters, and religious enthusiasts have been simultaneously advocating for the banning of these books.
College students especially have been discussing amongst themselves whether book banning is truly justified or not. Conor Finney, a student at PPCC, said, “I think that book banning in the college setting is wrong in certain ways. If the college is trying to [maintain] a non-opinionated setting, then book banning [could be] useful to make sure that the school is following their own guidelines.” He elaborated, “When it comes to banning certain books because of their content [or] based off of a bias, then it is wrong because you are limiting the sources students can use to learn about different cultures and/or beliefs.”
Rachel Moore, another PPCC student, believes that banning books at any level is silly. “College is a time to explore the world on your own,” said Moore. “It’s a time to read and learn things that challenge the way you think. Banning books halts this process.”
Recently, there have been conversations within schools about giving books a rating system similar to the rating system that already exists for movies, television, video games, and music. People have suggested that even though their constitutional rights grant them the ability to access any and all literature, perhaps certain books should be age-restricted.
“In a way, we already have a rating system,” said Moore. “Books are normally categorized by children’s, young adult, adult fiction, and non-fiction. Teen fiction can be murky as far as content goes, but if someone is that concerned, they should use their best judgment and do their own research on the book.”
Some college students have advocated for the inclusion of books that have been banned in American literary culture. Even though these books may be offensive to some, students cite that the First Amendment of The Constitution guarantees their right to free speech, and in turn allows the authors of these books to publish their works regardless of whatever messages they may convey.
At PPCC, our Librarians work to maintain a collection of different viewpoints. Taylor Gorman, Librarian Technician at Centennial said:
“As an academic library, Banned Books Week is a little different for PPCC. Often, the week involves a debate over materials that are ‘age-appropriate’ for their audience, usually in reference to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.
At the Learning Commons, however, since our primary patronage is often an older subset, we simply strive to incorporate books of all ideas: we have Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, we have books by political candidates of various parties, we have Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves on DVD, and we even have a self-published book that attempts to refute climate change.
And, of course, we have Toni Morrison. Any library that celebrates literacy has to incorporate all realms of thought–not just its own.”