DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER: The Value of Banned Books
Here 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 To raise questions, concerns and discussion about outdated attitudes and to consider the content as much as the context, an important distinction when considering free speech allowances.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.