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DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: The Value of Banned Books

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Don't Shoot the MessengerHere we go:  Stepping into a hornet’s nest.

In our last issue, we teamed up with Medford Public Library to bring attention to the upcoming Banned Book Week, September 22 – October 1 (see Letters)

What a coincidence. About the very same time, 12 miles to the south, there was a tempest in a teapot over banned books, brewed by Shakespeare Books & Antiques bookstore on East Main Street, and the nearby Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). Shakespeare Books owner Judi Honore has had a long-standing display of “banned books.” It has been a popular, if not controversial display.

But this summer, the controversy turned up the heat, as OSF representatives asked owner Honore to remove books that were “hurtful and harmful”; in particular, the controversy seemed to focus on the 1937 book, Little Black Sambo. When Honore refused to remove the book—after all, the display was there to raise discussions about censorship—OSF reportedly told staff not to purchase items from the store.  

We don’t want to rehash any she said, they did details, but we would like to take a moment to reflect on the various responses to the incident, and the ultimate outcomes from this philosophical squabble.  

First off, it is too bad—and far too common in what seems like our contemporary quick-click and snap-judgment culture—that outrage seems like the most common response these days, one that is sidelining more calm and involved considerations.

Yes, Little Black Smabo is a book with offensive and senseless stereotypes. It is offensive—and we don’t doubt that Honore understood that when she displayed it. Included in the racially banned books also were novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, an enduring tale about injustice, friendship and honor, but also which includes more than 200 uses of the n-word.  

But that was sort of the point, right? To raise questions, concerns and discussion about outdated attitudes and to consider the content as much as the context, an important distinction when considering free speech allowances. And, as much so, there is an irony that a book which was being used to exhibit the concept of banned and offensive books was itself then asked to be removed. Yes, that is the definition of irony. But, in the words of Forest Gump: And we have nothing more to say about that.

Moreover—and in the words of Ice Cube—OSF, you may want to check yourself before you wreck yourself: Shakespeare wasn’t always the most generous or fair in his racial and religious portrayals. Um, “Othello”? Or, hmm, “Merchant of Venice” isn’t a script that is gleefully passed around m/any synagogues.

Yes, thankful times are changing: The past decade has been a revolution in acceptance in the United States—the first African-American president, legalization of same-sex marriages, recognition of transgender persons. Yes, of course these landmark achievements do not eclipse the pain and daily reality of continued racism, bigotry, bullying and abuse, but they do mark remarkable advancements in acceptance and outright considerations of individuals. And, an important part of knowing where we are, is understanding where we came from. Even considering some of the generally constrictive and cruel attitudes ten years ago is an important yardstick: At that time, the only black presidents were acting on TV shows, same-sex marriage was constitutionally banned in most states and transgender persons were little better than a punch-line for derogatory jokes.

To put in even more jarring context, I recently attended a 30th anniversary screening of “Stand By Me,” the iconic coming-of-age movie about four boys from a small Oregon town who walk along the railroad tracks to find the body of a dead boy. I watched the movie when it was released in 1986, and the language at the time seemed par-for-course; insults about masculinity, mental capacity, and general misogyny. Re-watching the film with my eight and ten year old girls was startling. It is still a wonderful and incredibly valuable movie, tense with themes about parental love and acceptance, about escaping social status, about friendship and bullying. But it also required post-viewing lengthy discussions.

Sadly, last week, Honore announced she will close Shakespeare Books at the end of October. It is a loss.

 

3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Melody Fennell
    September 12, 2016 at 4:35 pm — Reply

    Little Black Sambo is Not Racist…In Africa as well as India the term “Black…” with the name of the person for example: Black Mamba, the Snake & BLACK JOE, an African friend, designed, then he had it printed on a t shirt FOR HIMSELF to Wear…!!! He was a friend of mine from Ghana, living in Hamburg, Germany (He also called my son “Little Black Olive” for Olivier) . IT IS a NAME The People of the Region GIVE THEMSELVES…and It is very common even to this day as it was in the past… Read Jungle Book for instance! The Ignorance of this subject is so overwhelming it has caused a Good Bookstore to Close..along with some really good breakfast places and THAT ALONE is a travesty! The book IS ADORABLE, and has tigers and slippers and butter and pancakes…My son loved it! And since I did not raise him with the unappealing trait of racism or the UNEDUCATED naivety of so many untraveled, semi illiterates there was only laughter in my house when I read the story… then we ate pancakes with loads of Tiger Ghee! Cheers!

  2. Avatar
    Melody Fennell
    September 12, 2016 at 4:52 pm — Reply

    The travesty was the Book Store closing… edit much! ; )

  3. Avatar
    Michael Goodfriend
    September 19, 2016 at 1:21 pm — Reply

    I wish Phil Busse and the Messenger had done due diligence before further disseminating the rampant misinformation surrounding this controversy. Rather than exhaust my thumbs setting the record straight in this box, I’d like to request that anyone interested in getting the full story (and yes, this is really the full story, there is no “other side” when it comes to facts) read the statement Bill Rauch wrote to the entire Rogue Valley community:

    http://archive.skem1.com/csb/Public/show/ce4eu–9hvdg-1hn66pk2

    The Messenger would do well to publish this link in its next issue, or better yet, publish Mr. Rauch’s statement in its entirety, to make up for Mr. Busse’s mishandling of theach issue.

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