My Defense of the Five Banned Books I Teach My Students



1. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Why It’s Been Banned: According to bannedbooksweek.orgAdventures of Huckleberry Finn was first banned in 1885 when Concord, Massachusetts, referred to it as “trash and suitable only for the slums,” and it’s no coincidence that Huck Finn has been one of the most controversial books in American history ever since. Twain’s use of the n-word 219 times, his criticism of religious—mainly Christian—hypocrisy, and his poking fun at educated, ‘sivilized’ society, make the book an easy target for parents and school boards.

Why I Teach It: In addition to its humor and satirical wit, the real heart of Huck Finn lies within Huck’s internal struggle to “do the right thing” in a wrong society. His transformation into someone who has to rethink everything he’s been taught about race speaks loudly to the journey all Americans face today—our need to undo what history and society has taught us about cultural, racial, and class differences. In a sense, Huck might be one of the first fictional characters to have a moral awakening regarding his white privilege, even if he is uneducated, poor, and—by Hannibal, MO, standards—sinful.


2.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Why It’s Been Banned: It’s always risky to mix sex and religion in America, am I right? And then to top it off, Hawthorne sets his adulterous affair in Puritan New England, one of the most strict and conservative time periods in this country’s history. He was practically asking for a scandal upon the book’s publishing in 1850. Perhaps the real reason for the book’s banning lies within Hawthorne’s refusal to give us any racy details about Hester’s illicit relationship. It’s our imaginations—not the book—that run wild with suggestion.

Why I Teach It: The Scarlet Letter does a wonderful job displaying the struggle of good versus evil within society and within the self. The novel can be a testament for the need for self-acceptance and tolerance in one’s own life. And while adultery may be an uncommon offense by today’s standards, female-labeling and slut shaming—both of which are ever present in the book—are not.


3. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Why It’s Been Banned: In her book, Banned Plays, Dawn B. Sova explains how the 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun received both criticism and censorship because of “the bitterness expressed by Walter Lee toward white society.” Set in Chicago in the 1950s, Hansberry’s play confronts the ugly truth of institutionalized racism in America. Reading (or watching) this play makes you feel icky about how society has treated people of color in our—even recent—history.

Why I Teach It: Nearly each member of the Younger family finds him or herself beaten down by institutionalized racism, those invisible, ingrained structures preventing both success and happiness. Beneatha Younger, especially, struggles to understand her place in society not only as an African-American, but as an African-American woman. Her struggle is two-fold; she must combat both racist and sexist stereotypes. Beneatha grapples with her choice to either style her hair naturally or relaxed (a choice First Daughter Malia Obama was criticized for in 2009, and a choice Beyoncé came under fire for this past summer), and she discovers the uphill battle she faces as an Black woman desiring an equitable college education. Some readers may think the story ends triumphantly as the Youngers decide to bravely move into the white neighborhood that doesn’t want them, but I always ask students what Hansberry must have imagined happens to the family after the play’s last line is spoken.


4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Why It’s Been Banned: Even as recent as last September, this book has faced scrutiny. In September 2013, North Carolina’s Randolph County Board of Education voted to remove the title from its shelves because one parent complained about its language, protested its sexual content, and claimed it was “too much for teenagers.”

Why I Teach It: Honestly, the opening chapter alone is one of the reasons I teach this book. The narrator’s coming-of-age journey as a naïve young man displaced from the racist South to the racist North is one worth studying. His attempts to first assuage and then combat society determine his fate at the end of the novel: sealed up in a dark, underground hole. It’s up to us to decide whether he’s better off with his new understanding and perception of the world in which he—and we—lives.


5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why It’s Been Banned: I was surprised to read on that “the majority of the copies that are read in schools have actually been changed from the original to make them ‘more acceptable’ for high school readers,” and it makes me want to pick up my copy to see which one I teach. The book is often criticized for its language and sexual content. But… this book takes place in the 1920s. It’d be borderline historically inaccurate if it didn’t contain questionable language and sexual content.

Why I Teach It: In this day and age when we have terminology like “the one percent,” the “dwindling middle class,” and “occupy wall street,” a book about the disillusionment of the American Dream is especially appropriate. Fitzgerald captures the three levels of society—the poor, the middle, and the upper classes—perfectly, and spends a great deal of effort portraying the different worlds. There’s certainly a compassion he feels with the lower-class’s aspiration to be on top, but he also paints a delicate picture of the unhappiness and vapid existence of the rich. This isn’t a story about “them,” the American elite; it’s the story about “us,” the ambitious, hopeful, and wide-eyed American. Period.