Censoring the American Canon: Farah Jasmine Griffin on Book Bans Targeting Black Writers
Acclaimed writer and professor Farah Jasmine Griffin joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to talk about why book bans so often target the power of Black literature. Griffin discusses the censorship of Black authors like Toni Morrison as well as communities’ efforts to preserve and share Black stories when schools won’t. Author of Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, Griffin discusses how her own exposure to Black authors like Morrison and James Baldwin came largely from her own father, outside of the classroom.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This podcast is produced by Anne Kniggendorf.
Farah Jasmine Griffin
Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature • “Banning Toni Morrison’s books doesn’t protect kids. It just sanitizes racism.” | The Washington Post • Who Set You Flowin?: The African American Migration Narrative
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison • “Missouri school district bans Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’” | Today • Ralph Ellison • “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” and “The Novel as a Function of American Democracy” by Ralph Ellison from Going to the Territory • Beloved by Toni Morrison • Toni Morrison • James Baldwin • If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin • The 1619 Project • Nikole Hannah-Jones • Adam Serwer on Critical Race Theory and the Very American Fear of Owning Up to Our Racist Past and Present Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 4, Episode 20 • Angela Davis
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I want to talk about the roots of this book-banning business. But for me, Ralph Ellison was one of the most inspirational and positive writers. Not that he diminished the difficulties of Black American life, but that he awoke me as a white reader and citizen to the greatness promised of America in a way that I hadn’t really thought about. I’m thinking of an essay like “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” where he’s talking about what’s great about American art. That’s not just Black art, that’s American art. And when I teach that essay to students of any race, I often try to tell them, look, this is a positive way; not very many people are talking positively about America, but if you want to look at people who believe in writers, who have articulated what the promise of America is, Black literature is great for that. That is a source that is incredibly powerful. And I feel like this is what is missed in this discussion.
Farah Jasmine Griffin: It’s totally missed. And it’s certainly what one of the goals of the book is to say. The writers who have reminded us so often of the promise because they’ve had to are the writers from this tradition, right? It is a reminder that this is what we can be. This is what we are working toward. And Ellison more so than anyone, certainly.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I was thinking of the essay “The Function of The Novel In American Democracy” as I was reading your book also. And yeah, I think this is such a rich example and throughout your book, you have many specific examples of scenes where Black community, Black love, Black care—as you’re describing—and care from Black communities towards others, as you’re describing it in Beloved, is a really constant thread throughout the book, which is something that I really appreciated about it.
FJG: Yeah, we all have our go-to writers, and Morrison is mine. But so is Baldwin, who never turns away, is kind of unflinching in confronting what is difficult and insists that we do. Talk about a writer who bears witness, but who also believes in the transformative potential of human interaction and care. In a novel like If Beale Street Could Talk, a poor family, a wrongly convicted young man, a young woman who’s about to have his baby—and they are taken care of not only by their families, their nuclear families, but in that novel there are these ever-widening circles: a Hasidic Jewish landlord who will rent to them when no one else will, Spanish restaurant workers who will feed them when they don’t have any money, an Italian immigrant store owner who testifies against the police officer who brutalizes the young Black man. There are these ever-widening senses of possibility of what we can be as citizens of a multiracial democracy, not even as, but while confronting the horrible things that people have had to undergo here.
WT: I want to trace this back a little bit to what I think is really the source of the targeting of Black literature right now. I mean, this has been going on forever in America, so I’m not going to say this is the beginning point, but The 1619 Project that Nikole Hannah-Jones did, it seems to me like the right realized that if they used the term critical race theory—and we already did an episode on this—that that was a successful political rallying cry to the racist white base of the conservative party, in my personal, simple view. And so they recognized—and tell me if you think this is a crazy theory—they recognized, I can’t just say I don’t like Toni Morrison because they’re talking about oppression that I find uncomfortable. They have to say, let’s talk about the sex part of this, instead. It’s a trick, really.
FJG: It’s a distraction. No, you’re right. You’re right. It’s a total distraction. And I think it’s the power of The 1619 Project, but I tell you what I also think. When I saw all those young people after George Floyd, and not just young people, when I saw all those people hit the street, who basically said, I see with my eyes what this is and you’re not going to tell me that my eyes aren’t seeing what I see. You’ve done that before, but you’re not going to do that now because I know what this is. I’ve been taught what it is, right? You’ve got two generations of young white people who are now grown and have children who have read Morrison, who have read Baldwin, who have had exposure in their classrooms to the very materials that people want to ban. And what does it do? It makes them stand up and say, no, not on my watch. Right? I’m not going to watch this. And I think the power of that is so frightening that that is also why you see this move toward we’ve got to stop this, we don’t want this in our schools, what are you indoctrinating our children with? We don’t want them exposed to the stuff that traumatizes them, that makes them feel guilty.
WT: Or that makes them realize that all the crap we’re saying is wrong.
FJG: Is wrong, is wrong.
VVG: I think one of the other things about this that is so interesting to think about, is that in your book, one of the most powerful examples of an educator is your father, who purveys to you this wonderful love of literature, who makes sure that, I think you use the phrase that it’s not an uncritical patriotism but a very engaged reading. He introduces you to this great body of work, and this is all a kind of education that actually happens outside of school. I just found all of the stuff about your father really moving, and I was thinking about how powerfully education exists outside of school walls in Black communities. Because, right, you’re talking about the young white people who hit the streets, they learned Morrison in school, but would they have found Morrison outside of school? Maybe, maybe not.
And so it seems to me that communities that have not been able to trust public institutions to preserve, protect, present their histories are the ones that have these strong, independent, oral intergenerational traditions of radical educational literature. Like the notion that it is your parents’ job or your elders’ job to sit you down and say, this is who Angela Davis is. I don’t know what’s going to happen with book banning. It seems like there’s a certain amount of backlash, of course, towards it. And there’s also this kind of short-term memory loss and then it happens again. It seems like a cycle. And I wonder how we can also learn from that non-institutional educational tradition.
FJG: Well, you know, you hit the nail on the head about why I wrote this book, because I wanted to share the things that I share in my classroom with people who will never be in my classroom, because I didn’t come to this material in the classroom. I mean, I eventually did, but as a child I didn’t. And not only did I not come to it in the classroom, my parents, they had no expectation that the school was going to teach me this. And in fact, they were countering what they thought I might get in school. You know, they were of a generation that read racist children’s literature. So they were countering what I might get in school.
This is the truth of our people, and I think this is true for all oppressed people. How do we pass down to our children the truth of who they are and the truth of their history to basically build them up against this onslaught that they’re going to get? I heard a wonderful idea. Someone said, you know, we can take all those banned books and actually make a curriculum for outside of school to teach young people. And now we have all kinds of ways to do it. Let’s read the banned books together. It’s a community-building effort. It’s an intergenerational effort, and it’s something that we have a tradition of having done.
Transcribed by Trint. Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan, Carter Groves, Brooke Spalding-Ford, Shannon Moran, Maria Starns, and Kayla Wiltfong. Photo of Farah Jasmine Griffin by Peggy Dillard Toone.