What Happens When We Ban Books?

by Mary Sojourner Jan 29, 2012
“It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.” ~ German poet, Heinrich Heine

SHE CALLS HERSELF Lost Angel. She is seventeen and lives in a little Northern Michigan resort town. She and I once wrote together in a circle of women — one of us sixty-five, the others between fourteen and seventeen. I did not teach grammar or sentence structure or organization of paragraphs. “Imagine this,” I said. “You contain poems and stories, songs and scraps of words. Imagine they are threads. Let yourself know their colors, feel their textures.”

The young women were quiet for a long time, then each of them picked up her pen and wrote. Here are the threads Lost Angel spun out, threads that she would tell me later, were a lifeline:

I find that I cry almost every night, and for what reason I don’t know. My mom says its hormones and typical girl thing. But I have a feeling its more than that. And I think it is because I hold so much, to the point to where if I were to hold any more I’d bust. I feel like I’m rambling and maybe I am, because doing this allows me to not hold on to things inside of me anymore, and their not weighing me down. I still have them though. I just now realized that I’m a rambler, someone who holds on to too much, some one afraid of forgetting her memories and the things she holds on to, and lastly, I’m afraid of being alone.

I’ve finally said it and I’ll say it again. I’m afraid of being alone. And that’s why I hold on to so much. But can you blame me? When you’ve been through what I have, you either forget it all, or you hold on until you can’t hold any more. I thought by writing this I’d be crying. But I’m not, and I think its because I’m experiencing some kind of twisted closure. I think I’ll start to let go. And as long as I remember to write I wont lose them completely. I just wish I could have realized this sooner. Its not that I don’t write everyday, I just don’t write about the past. Which I’ll start doing. So I can make more room to hold on to more, and write it down when I’m ready to.

This is what I needed, to write this entry. Because I have said things I’ve needed to say for a long time, I just had not figured out how. So this ends it. But starts a whole new beginning for me as a teen, or young adult. Yeah it’s not the end, just the beginning. I’m happy for that.

A year or so after I met Lost Angel, I taught a few hours at Puente de Hozho, the Flagstaff multi-lingual school on Fourth Street. My students were fourteen sixth graders and three dozen third graders. They wrote not from my spoken cue, but from photographs they had taken in their communities: family, friends, schoolmates, sales clerks, and workers at the mall. I was the teacher and I felt ashamed because most of the sixth graders spoke two languages — one bright-eyed girl, three — and I am fluent only in English.

I helped them study their pictures, looking for colors, and for what reminded them that they belonged. They helped me stumble, dull-tongued, through a few words of Spanish — a few words, but words we spoke together, fists raised in the air, every boy and girl, both teachers grinning in a kind of triumph.

“I have many stories,” we said. “Tengo muchos cuentos,” we chanted. “I have many stories. Tengo muchos cuentos.” And Kayla, our trilingual girl, whose people live on the Navajo rez, said, “Yá’át’ééh, mis amigos, I have many stories, and I am proud of all of them.”

Two days ago, a friend sent a link to an online newspaper story with the headline, “Tucson schools ban books by Chicano and Native American authors.” I chased links and found this in the New York Daily News:

    The Tucson Unified School District released the titles of its banned books on Friday, a lengthy list that removes every textbook dealing with Mexican-American history — and even Shakespeare. The book ban is part of a curriculum change to avoid “biased, political and emotionally charged” teaching, CNN reported. “The Tempest,” one of the playwright’s classics, is among the books removed, as teachers were urged to stay away from any works where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,” the website Salon reported.

“Tengo muchos cuentos.” “Yá’át’ééh, mis amigos, I have many stories, and I am proud of all of them.” I remember the voices in the classroom at Puente de Hozho and that, in English, Puente de Hozho means Bridge of Beauty and Balance. I remember that when I e-mailed Lost Angel’s words to my adult writing students, they wrote back.

    “This is why we have to write…This is why we have to let kids know that it is the stories that matter, and the telling of them…this is why we cannot give up, even when there seems to be no time, no room, no will to follow our pens as they move over the blank page, that emptiness that might receive what we must tell.”

If I have a credo for making beauty, this is it: the stories exist, it is our good luck and burden to bring them out. If I have a credo for the most precious gift we can give our children, not just our biological children, but the children of our species, it is this: what you feel and know matters, if you write it, paint it, dance it, speak it, make music with it, you will let others know that what they feel and know matters. There is a moment in the movie Walk the Line in which record producer Sam Phillipps tells Johnny Cash that if he sings what he believes, it is what will save others. There must be no book bannings, no acts of genocide against which our stories will not prevail, and survive.

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