Clad in all-black with neon yellow caution tape wrapped around their arms, the Birmingham Jail Players read selections from their favorite banned novels, including “Lord of the Flies,” “The Glass Castle” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”
The Players formed in January 2014 in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Week, when they read the entirety of the Civil Rights activist’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The iconic essay, written in 1963, criticizes the inaction of the “white moderate.”
Azar Nafisi, author of the autobiographical “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and executive director of cultural conversations at Johns Hopkins University, echoed King’s message as she prefaced the performances with an appeal to readers to defend intellectual freedom.
“Freedom to read is freedom itself,” Nafisi said. “Even in a society that is open, freedom can be taken away.” Therefore, she said, readers need to advocate for their own access to books.
The U.S. has hosted its fair share of obscenity trials for literature in the past, but the White House remains unlikely to pull a “Fahrenheit 451” and command a nationwide book-burning of all copies of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Yet grassroots attempts to remove books from local schools or libraries periodically crop up across the country.
“My school banned [the entire genre of] dramas after my third grade class graduated,” said Eric Riley, the coordinator for adult programs for DCPL at MLK Library, “because they thought [that a play we performed] promoted witchcraft.”
“I remember I had to bring a note to check out ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ [by Judy Bloom],” added Emily Menchal, an adult librarian at the Chevy Chase branch. “It’s not banning, but still, my mom was like, ‘seriously?’”
Last year, a parent in Fairfax County, Va., tried to ban Toni Morrison’s Beloved from the school district. The parent deemed it “too intense” for high schoolers, Washingtoniana Collection and Black Studies Center librarian Kelly Navies said, but she was unsuccessful.
“If they’re not relevant to our lives today – why are we banning them?” Nafisi said.
Vita Pierzchala is a junior English major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.