I cut my teeth in El Paso as a graduate assistant teaching English — writing, composition, remedial reading, literature — in the early 1980s. That’s when librarians were robust, gutsy and on the front lines of free speech. They helped develop library materials and organize talks around Banned Books Week (Sept. 26 – Oct. 2).
I also peddled stories and books as a fiction writer, and I was the Sunday book reviewer for the El Paso Times. My raison d'être was to make sure my writing and everyone else’s was made available to me, my students and my colleagues.
Throughout the next 40 years, I’ve headed up talks and readings celebrating diverse voices and works from people outside the Eurocentric dominant force in our traditional K-12 and higher education arenas.
Books by Caribbean, Mexican, South American, Central American, Native American, Iranian or Ethiopian writers were not just curiosities. For many of my students, reading Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat, Sherman Alexie or Zora Neal Hurston created a deep and long-lasting interest in their own cultures, in education, in lifelong reading and in bringing into focus the power of their own identiites reflected in others’ writing.
This year’s Banned Books Week is tantamount to motivating as many people as possible to understand active and passive censorship. There are entire lists of books removed from high school libraries. There are all kinds of books that are targets of school boards, parents groups, religious groups and political advocacy committees.
As a writer, I know my published words are not always appreciated by a variety of readers. I write with many hats on, and in that capacity, I am able to cross the Rubicon many times: from poetry, to fiction, to essays, to polemics, to blogs, to traditional journalism, and more.
I’ve faced down bigotry and hate for books I have put on my syllabi. I have had people walk out of my readings and those of more important people like Winona LaDuke or Tim O’Brien. Walking out is one’s right, and so are bigoted diatribes. However, stopping the publication of books and demanding books be removed is not a right.
I was teaching at a state community college in Washington when I faced a student who demanded I give her an alternative text for “The Fight Club.” Ironically, we looked at various themes in that book, and the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, was coming to town and opening himself up to talking with my students.
That English class included other books that got under the skin of other students and/or their parents (mind you, this was a college class, not a religious school). Bringing writers to campus and having students read their books is part and parcel of what educators must do to open minds and create critical thinking. College deans, department heads, provosts and even presidents must protect that right of freedom to read.
Yes, students in high school have a right to have a history teacher assign Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” Or a film teacher has a right to assign her under-18-year-old students, “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Exterminate All the Brutes” to delve into filmmaker Raoul Peck’s work.
Reading “Fahrenheit 451” and then comparing Raymond Bradbury’s work to François Truffaut’s 1966 version or the 2018 adaptation directed by Ramin Bahrani is vital to learning.
Today, cancel culture rests in identitarian politics. Misinformation campaigns around the 1619 Project or what “critical race theory” is are ongoing. This muddies the water of opening up critical thinking skills for both educators and students.
In “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman posits the future would look similar to the one depicted in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, “Brave New World.” Postman explains that the only way to avoid this fate is to see and question what we’re seeing, rather than blindly trusting the media.
Others predict a world unfolding closer to “1984,” the George Orwell’s classic. Others might choose to riff with and analyze Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.”
All those books have been put on some school district’s banned book list: driven by a fervor seated in xenophobia, lack of understanding of what literature is, and deeply held conservative beliefs. Cancelling out books is akin to burning them. We all know where that led the world.
This year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
Paul Haeder is a novelist, journalist, educator and the author of “Wide Open Eyes,” Cirque Press, 2020.