You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book news and reviews.

Display for the times at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore

YCRT! News

A Texas congressman says “Better to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” A San Antonio PBS talk show host records a rebuttal but the station CEO pulls it, citing fears of retribution through cuts to federal funding. Turns out the CEO has ties to the congressman. Although the rebuttal eventually airs, self-censorship by public media is a huge concern under the current administration.

At last, a new Philip Pullman trilogy is in the works (I’ve already pre-ordered the first book, due out in October). Pullman’s infamous His Dark Materials trilogy consistently ranks high on the American Library Association’s annual list of banned & challenged books.

“At Colby College, a student was reported for saying ‘on the other hand,’ which was perceived as ableist by another student.” This has to be The Onion, right? Sadly, no.

The hyperbolic headline says “Read these 10 Books Before They’re Banned in the U.S.” Well, no, but they’re certainly the kind of books that will be challenged, should any high school teacher dare to assign them.

Diversity posters have been taken down by Maryland school administers because, apparently, celebrating diversity is an anti-Trump political stance. It probably didn’t help that the artist, Shephard Fairey, created the Obama “Hope” poster from 2008.

Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” have been removed from a Nome, Alaska high school substitute reading list after a group of parents complained about “large amounts of profanity, sex, violence, abuse, rape, and incest.” As if any of these parents have actually read these books, and not gotten their information from Christianist book-banning sites.

Google alerts me to stories of book challenges and bannings. These links often lead to religious and anti-abortion sites complaining about libraries refusing to stock religious, racist, and anti-semitic tracts. Such organizations call their pamphlets literature in order to make specious claims about “liberal book-banning.” Sometimes, though, claims are more nuanced: in this case, a university library pulling a biography of Winston Churchill from public display because the author is a Holocaust denier.

When young adult books with racially and sexually diverse characters are assigned as student reading, parental challenges are sure to follow. But if you want to publish a truly subversive novel, have a main character who’s fat.

Speaking of diversity in YA literature, here’s an author who went along with a request to self-censor a talk to students and wishes she hadn’t. I wish she hadn’t, too.

You can bet I clicked on this story: Florida Fire Started by Book Burning Destroys at Least 10 Homes.

Uh oh. “Much like Virginia, the state of Florida now has its own set of ‘zombie bills’ that have returned to the legislature for the second year running, in an attempt to weaken education standards and allow any taxpayer—not just parents—to raise objections to instructional materials.”

Shortly after historian Howard Zinn’s death in 2010, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels wrote: “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Now it is 2017, and an Arkansas state legislator has introduced a bill to “halt the use of any book or other material authored by Zinn between the years of 1959 and 2010 in public schools and open-enrollment public charter schools.”

With this new attempt to ban Howard Zinn’s works from public schools, I think it’s time to repost my 2014 review of his most controversial work.

YCRT! Banned Book Review

peoples historyA People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn

Read a representative sample of reviews on Goodreads and you’ll appreciate how polarizing “A People’s History of the United States” is. Readers tend to fall into two exclusionary camps: violent opposition or adulatory praise. Zinn’s history has been the target of censors and book banners from its publication in 1980 to the present day. The ongoing controversy over “A People’s History” is what motivated me to read it.

As a child I believed my country was exceptional. That’s what I was taught; that’s what the adults I looked up to believed. Victory in WWII was still fresh and the economy was booming under Eisenhower, at least for families like mine. When I was still very young my father joined the US Air Force. We began to move around the country. I came to realize that many Americans were not like the white families I saw on TV, and that their experience of America was quite different from mine. At an age when I was politically aware enough to know segregation was wrong and could not last, my father was stationed in Virginia and I had to attend a whites-only school. I gave up believing in fairy tales and god. I started reading on my own, a habit I never successfully broke. I protested our early involvement in Vietnam, packed clothes and food for the Freedom Riders, helped a friend obtain conscientious objector status, and became a member of SNCC. American history, to me, had begun to look not all that different from the history of any other country.

Which is to explain that I knew at least some of the untaught history of the USA before I ever picked up Howard Zinn’s book. Nevertheless, the factual information collected here is shocking. Even for an old cynic like me, the accumulation of sordid details is depressing. On and on Howard Zinn goes, relentlessly rubbing our noses in American history as it was experienced by the Indians, indentured servants, black slaves and freemen, the poor, the landless, the unprivileged, women, child laborers, the bottom 50%. Zinn is frank in stating that this was his express purpose in researching and writing “A People’s History”; if you accept his premise—that it is just as important to study history from the point of view of the oppressed as it is from the point of view of the oppressors—then everything he relates in this book follows. But damn, it’s depressing to try to digest it all at once, even if you appreciate the importance of what Zinn was trying to accomplish.

It’s no wonder an entire political camp—the American right—rejects Zinn’s book. The history it recounts, starting with the very first chapter (“Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” a chapter so shocking and disturbing I suspect few conservative readers ever progress beyond it) is incompatible with a belief in American exceptionalism. Or fairies. Nor is it a wonder many on the American right would attempt to suppress this book, purge it from schools and colleges, and call for it to be banned outright. The attack on Zinn and his book follows familiar lines: the author is an America-hater and a Marxist; “A People’s History” is praised by Hollywood celebrities, championed by leftists, and taught by subversives; Zinn’s interpretation of history is meant to weaken American minds and pave the way for implementation of United Nations Agenda 21.

In 2009 at North Safford High School in Virginia, “A People’s History of the United States” was challenged as “un-American, leftist propaganda,“ even though it was not the primary textbook in that school’s AP history class and was taught alongside an article titled “Howard Zinn’s Disappointing History of the United States,” critical of Zinn’s book.

When Howard Zinn died in 2010, Indiana’s then-Governor Mitch Daniels emailed the state’s top education official. “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he began. He went on to demand that “A People’s History” be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” In 2013, Daniels, now president of Purdue University, defended his earlier attempt to ban Zinn’s book from Indiana schools: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.”

In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District banned several books from local high schools. Prominent on the list of banned textbooks (still banned as I write this review) is “A People’s History.”

Just this year, in 2014, conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed sweeping changes to the AP history curriculum. I do not know if Zinn’s book, or parts of it, is being studied by AP history students in Jefferson County, but the statements of the conservative school board members make me think Zinn’s book is on their target list: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials, and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights,” reads the proposal, presented by conservative board member Julie Williams. “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Needless to say, I do not adhere to the conservative camp when it comes to the suppression of thought or the denial of historical fact. Zinn’s history helps fill in the gaps in our education and gives us a necessary insight on American exceptionalism as it was experienced by the people we’d just as soon forget. I think it makes the thoughtful student a better and more patriotic American, able to appreciate how much we have actually done to wrest control of our country, and our history, from the one percent who would otherwise be totally in charge. But that’s just me.

With all that said, Zinn’s history, though well-written and researched, is a tough one to read, and might overwhelm people reading about the less savory parts of our nation’s history for the first time. It’s hard not to say to yourself, once or twice per chapter, “Gee, Zinn, would you lighten up a little?”

Here are a few links relevant to the banning and suppression of “A People’s History of the United States”:

© 2017, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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