Somewhere in this country, there is always a Toni Morrison book banned.

book reading

One of history’s most challenged authors, Morrison’s literature centers around African-American cultural inheritance, both good and bad. In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved.” Five years later, she became the first black woman to lay claim to a Nobel Prize.

No other author has moved me in so many ways. One book of hers will encapsulate an impossibly wide array of emotions. A Morrison book is funny and heartbreaking, and will incite both action and contemplation. She is my favorite author, and subconsciously, I can always feel her precedent informing the way I write. I will always strive for her breadth of emotion and knowledge.

“I’m writing for black people,” Morrison said in an interview with “The Guardian,” “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.” Her irreverence for the white critic is demonstrated in the harsh backlash her books have continuously faced since their publication.

In 1997, Texas prisons considered “Paradise” too dangerous for their libraries because it might incite “strikes or riots.” A year later, the district superintendent of the St. Mary’s County, Md., school district overruled a faculty committee recommendation and removed “Song of Solomon” from the schools’ approved text list, referring to the novel as “filth,” “trash,” and “repulsive.” In 2007, “Beloved” was removed from an AP English class in Louisville, Ky., because it “depicted the inappropriate topic of racism.” And in 2013, school officials decried “The Bluest Eye” for its “underlying socialist-communist agenda.”

And I wonder how the work of an artist like Morrison would have been perceived, had she not openly and explicitly written from and about black perspectives. Were this the case, I know she wouldn’t have been banned, but she also would have never won a prize. I think of an unattributed quote I’ve seen floating around the internet: “When you're accustomed to privilege equality seems like oppression.”

A book is immediately designated as about “race” when it’s written from a black perspective — when, in fact, it simply deals with human experience and development. If a piece of literature speaks from a white perspective it’s seen as universal. White literature is about race as well, just placed in a discourse of universality through unexpressed and unmentioned white perspectives. Unfortunately, this discourse is still present and it contributes to the invalidation and belittling of all perspectives that don't speak whiteness. It refuses to acknowledge the complexity of writing by reducing it to a “racial” topic.

Meaningful literature, regardless of perspective, deals with universal human topics. It's the white discomfort that can't endure the mentioning of race, that focuses on and obsesses over it, portrays it as the only marker. This discomfort disqualifies any literary perspectives, other than white, from being universally relevant.

Empathy isn’t looking into a mirror, yet often it feels as if a work’s topics, protagonists, and social commentaries are dismissed when the literary mirror isn’t polished to a fine luster. If white readers can’t see their own reflections in a book, that book is far more liable to be banned. American literature is many, many years away from emancipating itself from the burden of racialization. I don’t know if the white gaze will ever lift. Even as much as Morrison aspired to redeem her writing from it, it was somehow always implied within her writing, playing a role in the protagonist's inner struggle and self-reflection and the development of the plot.

Morrison often spoke up against book banning, most famously in the introduction to an anthology she edited, “Burn This Book: Notes on Literature and Engagement.” “The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”

It is far easier to ban a book you haven’t read, and I’m certain this was the case in the instances I mentioned. Because how can one read Morrison and not be amazed by the way she speaks? How she articulates the inarticulable and illuminates with words? How she fiercely and warily awakens her characters, whose journeys portray the deepest questions of humanity? These journeys occur chiefly because of an omnipresent racialization of the societies they navigate.

We as readers need to appreciate and acknowledge the importance of perspective centering. What matters are the characters and their innermost and deepest confrontations with their experiences, lives, emotions, desires and decisions throughout their identity.