The Right to Restrict

The history of banned books in America.

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The Right to Restrict

Thomas Edwards, Staff Writer

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The First Amendment is the first law amended because it was undebatebly the biggest reason why the pilgrims wanted to break off from Britain and become an independent nation. They wanted to pursue their peaceful religions in peace. They wanted to endorse their own political beliefs without being drowned out by the monarchy. They wanted to speak out against their adversaries without worrying about shadowy men knocking at their door. All of this contributed to the revolution that brought about the first thirteen states. They did not want to be tread on.

It can be argued that Great Britain technically had more freedom than America ever did. True, people could go and do whatever they want within the law, and exercise whatever they please. The issue is that nothing was in place to prevent the removal of these rights by other citizens, or companies. That was the problem. America added nothing regarding the rights of its citizens and restricted some, but it was for the better. It allowed diversity of people and thought to flourish.

This key distinction is what paints America as this great place where people can’t stop you from doing whatever you want. Despite this, America has went ahead and done exactly the opposite on multiple occasions, and one of the worst examples of this hypocrisy is the banning of books. People like to ridicule the dystopian worlds of Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell, thinking to themselves “that’ll never happen to me”. Little episodes of those worlds seep into reality in some moments, and while you should never fearmonger these worlds overwhelming reality, you should always be on the lookout for those times, momentarily, where they prove themselves true.

Public schools like to do this a lot. They’ll look for old, dated books that no longer represent the good American values today and kick them onto the curb, forgetting all about historical context. The poor Huckleberry Finn was halted from his adventures and subject to this abuse, among the Finch family from To Kill a Mockingbird and Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. The racial prejudices that were once a daily presence in the lives of Mark Twain and Harper Lee are deemed “too offensive” for today’s children to observe as well, even if just momentarily and without consequence. It’s mighty unfortunate too—who knows how many children couldn’t empathize with the oppressed black community of the past because they never found a literary figure to connect to. I suppose it’s worth it as long as the kids aren’t scared. We would never want that.

Sometimes it’s not even kids that are protected. Fully grown citizens have thrown hissy fits over the texts they see on the shelf of the public library. Back when the Cold War was highest, patriots were demanding the removal of any work from Karl Marx and the like, adamant that the decision would repel the red menace, unknowing that it would only encourage their rebellious kids to read it. The Associated Farmers of California found their representation in the award winning The Grapes of Wrath appalling, and banned the book from any and all schools or public libraries in Kern County in 1939, before recalling the ban just two years later.

Even the government itself couldn’t resist the allure of banning books. When their own Lt. Col Anthony Shaffer published his memoir on the time he spent as a report officer in Afghanistan, he swore that the U.S. Defense Department had confiscated and burned all copies of his work on its initial release, before succumbing to censoring his own work to get the memoir out there.

What causes this overwhelming urge to suppress the ideas of the fellow citizen? What is there to gain from the controversy? One of the very first instances of this sort of literary censorship in America was the fate of poor old Uncle Tom, whose cabin was deemed too criminal to breach the local bookshelf. Southerners far-and-wide criticized the piece violently, and kicked and yelled and spasmed all the way to the libraries to toss the book right out and hand it a flaming match. They sent death threats and obscene gestures to the accomplished Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the reaction was so overblown that the book was even cited as a major cause of the Civil War.

And I guess they got what they wanted after all, because after all that fuss, you don’t see Uncle Tom’s Cabin in such a good light anymore. Even I, for a moment, was doubtful about bringing up this book, because all I heard was how much it stereotyped black people. I wasn’t even sure if it was written by a black person, or if it was an anti-slavery piece at all. I see so many modern groups dismiss the novel for its condescending betrayal of the people it sought to defend, that I wonder if they even recognize its role in the liberation of black slaves.

If the efforts of Frederick Douglass, the Langston duo, and Sojourner Truth gave the abolitionist movement a voice, Stowe gave it a megaphone, and the speeches they made with it rippled across the country with the volume of a volcanic eruption. And to just turn your head and scoff at the novel—it disrespects everything the author sought to cultivate in its readers. The audience this was developed for doesn’t even have a living remnant anymore. If you wanted to observe the opinion of a reader back in its original release, 1852, you would have to consult a tombstone with a medium. If not that, you have numerous essays written during the time that gave an opinionated damn about everything about the novel but the stereotypes. I guess you wouldn’t even be able to easily find a reader of the time here in the South, because the book was absent for decades here before finally getting into the hands of the defeated confederates.

That’s the kind of result banning literature can result in. Great works of art are defiled by the ignorant and intellectually deaf. Authors are denied their right of expression because it may or may not offend someone. People are refused an opportunity to read something infinitely influential because of someone who couldn’t know less about the groups they try to defend. These people are gatekeepers of the highest degree, and spit in the face of everything the Pilgrims and others fought for.

Literature was made to be read. It should never be fated to death as fuel for a bonfire, nor should it ever rest in the locked drawer of a teacher. It should be opened and revealed to innocent eyes, courageous and willing to a world curated by strangers near and far. To all who oppose this just stance; if the First Amendment is to ever stand proud in the Constitution, so should the confidence authors have that their work will be protected, no matter the cost and means.

If you want to see more works that have been unfairly banned in America, see the list of Banned & Challenged Classics from the American Literacy Association, and for works at risk of banning in the future, see their list of Frequently Challenged Books.