September 22-28, 2019, is Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of our freedom to read. Last fall, Dr. Johnny Wink and Dr. Jay Curlin taught an Honors Seminar on Banned Books. They, along with two of their students Tucker Douglass and Kyle Burrow, are this week’s guest writers on the subject.
The first book I remember being scandalized by is Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” which I first read my junior year of high school. We had read other previously banned books in class, but none that I actually thought merited being banned. But if you read the opening poem to the “Spirit,” and then down to the third paragraph on the first page you will have encountered the unorganized religion of the author, mangled English, and a reference to sexual violence using only words that can’t be said in movies without an R-rating. That’s all without turning a page. If you press on you will find domestic abuse, abnormal romantic relationships, lesbian sex and a rejection of the traditional conception of God.
Being in my more fundamentalist years when I first met this book, each one of these issues alone seemed reason enough to ban the novel. However, our teacher tricked our class into reading the book willingly. She let us read the first page and said if we didn’t think we could handle reading the book, we were to go to her and ask for an alternate assignment. At sixteen I made sure to exude comfort and maturity, even though I know my reddened face and tapping foot said otherwise. So I read the book, and disagreed with much of it at the time, though I do see some things differently now.
I share virtually no characteristics with the main character, Celie, except that I’m also human. In my philosophy courses, we spend a lot of time paring down definitions. This book was one of my first exercises in paring down my own definition of what it means to be human. “You must be asleep,” Celie wrote to God. I’ve felt that too, though for different reasons. This general, deep seated confusion about what is happening in the world, and why, is one of the most characteristically human emotions we feel. Of course, pressing on through those feelings is also human.
It’s Walker’s presentation of general human emotions in a story that many of us can’t fully relate to that makes me consider “The Color Purple” a light instead of just another smutty novel.
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