Saturday, September 25, 2010

Exercise Your First Amendment Rights - Read a Banned Book!

UPDATE 9/28: I posted again on Banned Books Week here--where you can win a free copy of the Richard Dawkins' book on the evidence for evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth

(photo by Gary, Mark Twain Museum)

Over at Vagabond Scholar on 20 Sept I was happy to see that Batacchio (whom I’ve not yet met personally but appreciate the blog) was promoting an anti-censorship theme by publicizing Banned Book Week.  BBW says:

This freedom [to read], not only to choose what we read, but also to select from a full array of possibilities, is firmly rooted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Sex, profanity, and racism remain the primary categories of objections, and most occur in schools and school libraries. Frequently, challenges are motivated by the desire to protect children. While the intent is commendable, this method of protection contains hazards far greater than exposure to the “evil” against which it is leveled.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, in Texas v. Johnson, said, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Individuals may restrict what they themselves or their children read, but they must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material.

OK, why is this personal to me? This summer the bride and I had the marvelous experience of making a trip to Hannibal, MO with an old dear friend. When we travel and want a keepsake of the trip, we typically look for local coffee mugs and books.

The latter keepsake, of course, could not be more appropriate for a visit to the childhood home of Mark Twain. We came away with 3 books: Twain’s autobiography; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We spent a wonderful summer reading same (in fact, I previously posted on Mark Twain and Ultrarunning here).

Both of us had previously read the two novels back in high school, but to re-read them as adults was a whole different experience.

Most notable of course, is that when reading the novels as a youth, we focused upon the adventure, the bad-boy rebel theme, and the outdoor craft. While we did back then ponder the institution of slavery, it was as adults that we were much more taken with the themes of social inequality, poverty, slavery, haves vs. have nots. 

Plus the fact that we have mixed-race grandchildren, whom we love with all our hearts. It is utterly incomprehensible to me how anyone could treat them any less just because of the color of their skin. I think that's what eventually transforms people's attitudes--having a loved one who is a target (be they gay, or black, or whatever).

Anyway, Huckleberry Finn has made the banned or challenged books list for awhile now, principally for its use of the N-word. I understand that Twain was writing, and his characters were speaking, in the idiom of the day, when the N-word was so commonplace as to be completely unremarkable. I submit that one of Twain’s purposes in writing was to call into question the practice of enslaving other human beings. The use of the N-word is both necessary and appropriate to make Twain’s point; namely, that human bondage is inexcusable.

In making that point Twain has succeeded, and continues to succeed. Here's a great quote of his on the subject:

Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.

So….go read (or re-read) the classics, especially The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is great literature on so many levels, not the least of which is Twain’s sympathetic portrayal of the humanity of slaves.

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