Restricted Access: The American History of Book Banning
Censorship and book bans are nothing new in American life. In the 19th century, it was the federal Comstock laws barring the delivery and distribution of “every obscene, lewd, or lascivious” book. Today, books that highlight race, gender, or sexuality are being yanked from public shelves around the country. This humanities discussion explores the history of book banning and obscenity laws in the United States.
- 10:31 Listen to André De Shields read an excerpt from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
- 26:05 Listen to Amy Werbel discuss the censorship efforts of Anthony Comstock in the early 1900s and the resistance to them led by figures such as Margaret Sanger.
- 34:45 Listen to Farah Jasmine Griffin discuss the banning of Toni Morrison’s books and Morrison’s long history of anti-censorship work.
- 41:24 Listen to Whitney Strub discuss book bans of LGBTQ books and how queerphobic bias has shaped the history of obscenity law.
- 51:23 Listen to Laurie Halse Anderson discuss writing stories that her teen readers can relate to as they deal with their confusing stage of life, and how censorship efforts have gotten worse in more recent years.
From the archives
- “48th PEN International Congress – Censorship in the USA” with Margaret Atwood, Robert Bernstein, Rose Styron, Gay Talese, Charles Rembar, Barbara Parker, Kurt Vonnegut (1986)
- “A Case of Libel” with Oren Lyons, Peter Matthiessen, Martin Garbus, Mary Morris (1986)
- “Red, White and Censored” symposium with Allen Ginsberg, Judy Blume, & Amy Tan (1989)
- “Evenings of Forbidden Books” with June Jordan, Andre Gregory, Toni Morrison, Calvin Trillin, Jamake Highwater, Erica Jong, John Irving, Anthony Burgess & more (1982, 1983)
- “American Right to Read Colloquium” on banning books like Slaughterhouse-Five (1983)
- Documentation of a recent attempt to ban numerous books in Florida, including many LGBTQ books
- Article about a recent book ban of one of Toni Morrison’s novels
Today, books in the US are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history. PEN America pushes back against the banning of books and the intolerance, exclusion, and censorship which undergirds it.
PEN America tracks book bans in libraries and classrooms across America in our Index of School Book Bans, updated weekly.
- Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools – PEN America
- Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature
- Literature Locked Up: How Prison Book Restriction Policies Constitute the Nation’s Largest Book Ban
Ali Velshi, host of Velshi on MSNBC
Laurie Halse Anderson, author of numerous novels, including Speak and Shout
Farah Jasmine Griffin, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University
Whitney Strub, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University
Amy Werbel, Professor, History of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology
With opening reading by André De Shields, Tony Award-winning actor