by Kylie Chen (’24) | November 18, 2022
As students walked into Summer Boismier’s English class at Norman High School in Oklahoma for the first day of school, they were greeted by bookshelves covered in red paper with the words “books the state doesn’t want you to read,” written across in black Sharpie. This was in reference to HB 1775, an Oklahoma law that limits what public schools can teach about race and gender. Boismier also displayed a QR code that linked to Brooklyn Public Library’s Books UnBanned program, which gives readers access to books that may be banned from their libraries and schools. After multiple parents complained about the “political display,” Boismier resigned from the school.
A challenged book that is taught at our own school is A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry. It takes place in the South Side of Chicago during the 1950s and follows the Younger family, who is about to receive a check from the late Mr. Younger’s life insurance policy. However, each family member has a different idea for the use of the money. Within the short timespan of the play, Hansberry touches on the topics of the American Dream, assimilation, Black beauty and feminism, generational divides, and class differences.
A Raisin in the Sun was revolutionary. It was the first play written or directed by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway (Hansberry did both). However, it was also the target of criticism. In 1961, its movie adaptation was censored to be more palatable to White audiences, and the book was first challenged in 1979 by an anti-pornography group for its references to abortion. In 2004, it was challenged in Illinois for being degrading to Black Americans, which could be due to the play’s inclusion of racist slurs.
The reasoning used in this case brings up the question: Can book banning be a good thing? Mr. Philip Pompei, a Social Justice teacher at Saint Francis, spoke about his experience with choosing textbooks for a religion class: “Maybe four years ago, our department decided that one chapter of the textbook we were using didn’t feel fully inclusive of all of our students, so we decided to remove that book from our syllabus.” However, he emphasized that this wasn’t a “true” example of book banning and said, “To me, [book banning] signals a sign of the times—that there is growing fear of what is different and what is unknown, and that people are insulating themselves from other thoughts and ideas and trying to do the same for the young people that they are charged to care for.”
Mr. John Foy, a history teacher, also elaborated on this question, saying, “The significance of book banning that high school kids can take away is that there’s people who desire to control what you think and believe, and when they’re trying to control what texts you have access to, that’s why they’re doing that. That can be good or bad… but that’s the purpose of doing it.”
Most recently, A Raisin in the Sun was banned from an Oklahoma school district along with other notable works by Black authors, including Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. These bans were a result of HB 1775, the same law that Boismier was protesting, and the books targeted were important works by prominent Black authors, a fact that was brought up by critics of the bans.
Ms. Grace Savinovich, an English teacher, called these types of book bans “ostracizing,” adding that “anytime we give messaging that something is banned or not okay, I think it interlaces more fear into education and our world that doesn’t need to be there.” She also noted, “One of the ways to kill culture most is by starting with the art of that culture, and I think literature is one of the most communicative arts.”
Ms. Meighan Wilson Friedsam, Saint Francis’ vice principal and an AP English Language teacher, emphasized the importance of diversity in creating curriculum for English courses at our school: “We read a lot and work to identify authors who represent identities and perspectives that we haven’t highlighted. The text needs to work in other ways: align with the goals of the class and offer students the ability to explore themes or language and style. Once we find something viable, we have other colleagues read the book and see if they agree.” She also added, “As vice principal, I work closely with Mrs. Yang in the library to review what’s happening in libraries and schools across the country. There’s great work behind the scenes to ensure that students have access to great books.”
Overall, what we can take away from these perspectives is that, despite any “positive” effect banning a book can have, most classroom censorship prevents students from broadening their perspectives and makes it harder for teachers to create an inclusive environment.