Why I Am Reading Banned Books This Summer

Post Author: Katie Callaway

CW: Sensitive topics like assault, police brutality, and censorship are discussed in this article



The words of Mark Mathabane’s book Kaffir Boy jumped off the page at me. I read of sexual assault, police brutality, and generational trauma at the hands of the ruling class in South Africa’s apartheid government. “Good thing that never happens here,” I thought to myself. Now, I recognize my privilege and innocence in my fascination with this book.


I was reading Kaffir Boy as a part of my summer reading for 9th Grade Literature. It was paired with To Kill a Mockingbird, a classic for rising high school students. However, by the time I was halfway through Kaffir Boy, my parents received correspondence that I was no longer required to read it. A parent had complained and reported the inappropriateness of the book to the principal. I was hurt; I enjoyed the book. I didn’t know how to name my fascination with the book then, but looking back on it, I saw in Kaffir Boy a world that was so unfamiliar to me, yet a world that I needed to learn about. The pain of the author was on full display: a pain I needed to witness and would have never seen with my own eyes.

That was 2003. Now, almost 20 years later, parents are still trying to shield their children from writings they do not find satisfactory to their worldview. 20 years later, that teenage reader is a pastor; a woman whose voice has been derided, whose body has been criticized, whose very presence has been debated. I now have 20 years of experience in the ways that women — particularly women in leadership — are taught to silence ourselves, a move not entirely unlike the impulse behind banning books.


Back in high school, when I found out about Kaffir Boy being taken off of our required reading list, my teacher still had her job. She simply moved it from required to recommended. To my knowledge, no parents yelled at her. No newspaper was contacted. Parents were just quietly informed that their children no longer had to read the book. Still, it made me interested in what it was that was so unsatisfactory to this parent. So, I read on.


Today, the stakes are higher surrounding banned books and the anger feels as though it has reached a boiling point. Parents are swarming school board meetings to yell about their rights to know what their children are reading and learning. Governors even have tip lines for parents to warn the state government about teachers who are teaching unapproved topics. Teachers’ hands are tied as they quickly lose the ability to make their own decisions about what happens in their classrooms. Books are being banned, removed from school libraries and teachers’ syllabi. Public libraries are stepping up to offer e-passes to children and young adults who are seeking books that have been banned by their school districts. In my town in Coastal South Georgia, a teacher has built a Little Free Library outside of his home that he will stock with banned books for children in our area.


As a pastor, I have been concerned to see this happening. I am always alarmed by exclusionist politics, especially when they’re rooted in the religious view that I am supposed to represent (though one could argue that we practice two entirely different religions). Certain perspectives and ideas are unwelcome in this time in which we find ourselves.


As a young clergywoman, I have seen women in churches be silenced. I have experienced it myself. And this leads me to be drawn to the voices that some are trying to drown out. I know the pain of being silenced. I know the heart it takes to create something, only to have my heart broken by people misinterpret it and misconstrue it. I know that pastors and authors have a lot more in common than most imagine: we are responsible for creating something and then sending it off into the world, vulnerable to misinterpretation and silencing. Those of us who identify as young and female in pastoral roles are even more vulnerable to this phenomenon.


The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has found that of the most frequently challenged books, most of them contain “diverse content,” defined using Malinda Lo’s definition: “books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people.” The ALA writes, “While ‘diversity’ is seldom given as a reason for a challenge, it may, in fact, be an underlying and unspoken factor: the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider.”


That sounds familiar. As a woman and as a pastor, I have long been the one who embodies “people and issues others would prefer not to consider.”


I will never forget early in my career when someone asked me about a t-shirt I often wore when working out that had the word “Patriarchy” on it. My interlocutor thought it had something to do with patriotism and when I corrected him, he asked, “Do you feel oppressed?” I had few choices in that conversation because he did not want to consider that I was vulnerable to systemic injustices that might be present in the community he loved.


That is why my bookshelf is going to be filled this summer with books that have been banned. I am going to start by revisiting Maya Angelou’s I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. No deep dive into banned books is complete without these two seminal authors, revealing the predisposition in our society to tune out the voices of Black women.


Then I will move to books like Maus and To Kill a Mockingbird, for the way they speak to society’s prejudices in powerful ways, something apparently legislators are fearing these days.

Eventually, I will sit on the sunny beach with more contemporary banned books: The Hate U Give, The Kite Runner, The Satanic Verses, and All Boys Aren’t Blue.


These books may be banned in some places, but they each have something important to teach us. They teach us about our biases. They teach us about systems in place in our world that dehumanize. They teach us about our tendencies to dichotomize. They teach us about our impulse to overlook trauma and pain. We need these books.


In the end, I hope that this exercise in reading unleashes something important in my soul, and maybe if you choose to join me, it will unleash something in you.


Not only do I hope it makes me more sensitive to and aware of the places where I have unintentionally and unconsciously silenced a person or a group of people, but I hope it gives me more insight into the parts of me that have been silenced. The parts of me that I have accepted as unacceptable to the church, to the community, to the society.


In her novel, Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson says, “Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” If there is something Clergywomen know well, it is fear and ignorance. May we respond to outer and inner censorship with grace, hope, and fortitude, knowing that whatever is being censored is needed in our world and ourselves.


To see the ALA’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books, click here.

Katie is currently between calls. She served for 3 years as Co-Pastor of First Baptist Church of Savannah, GA. She co-pastors with her divinity school sweetheart, John, with whom she parents, Sophie (kid) and Lily (German Shepherd).

Image by: Katie Callaway
Used with permission
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