On Intellectual Freedom, Banned Books, and #BlackLivesMatter

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Written by UAP member Sam Allingham

This semester, I've noticed a distinct difference in my first-year writing class at Temple University. No, it's not just that there are more of them than I'm used to (although that's something I'd like to talk to the administration about); it's that the students have come to college already equipped with some fundamental understanding about the way white supremacy works in America.

Let me back up a little. The syllabus for my first-year writing class at Temple is meant, in many ways, to open up students to the reality of difference in America – particularly how difference is manifested in urban America, particularly in Philadelphia. My students, for the most part, come from outside of the city: some from other states, some from rural Pennsylvania, some from the suburbs. The first-year writing curriculum is expected to expose them to issues they might not necessarily be familiar with: issues of race and gender and class, and how they mingle within the city as a lived environment.

Of course, one of the main facets of this is the question of police brutality. It's been two years since I've taught this course, and in all of the previous classes the issue of police brutality was difficult to engage with. Students (even students of color) tended to coalesce around the idea that anyone who ended up involved with the police was probably a “bad person” -- and the idea that the police might engage in systematic discrimination was practically unthinkable. When I brought up the concept, students who had relatives in law enforcement often became angry with me. What did I know about the lives of police officers? How could I speak against people who put their lives on the line for my protection?

It's entirely possible that there were students in my classes that had very different opinions about the police, and who did not feel comfortable bringing up those ideas in the classroom. I imagine there were, and I take responsibility for not creating the environment necessary for them to speak. In the face of the majority of students repeating false truths about society – that the police serve and protect us all from barbarism, and that questioning them is to invite chaos – I was cowardly; I backed down.

I thought about these experiences recently, as I meditated on Banned Books Week. The more I thought about why we celebrate banned books, the more I thought about their role in speaking truths that society deems unspeakable: the way they have served, both historically and in the present day, as transmission devices for ideas that have transformed society. And I also thought about other transmission devices: ones we don't fully understand yet, like hashtags and memes – without, perhaps, the linguistic complexity of books, but capable of traveling faster, of coalescing disparate social groups around a sudden transformation of opinion.

Because this semester, my students have a completely different perspective about police violence. When I taught an essay about trust between New York City teens and the NYC Police Department, I asked my students to raise their hands if they thought that unfair policing and police brutality was a serious issue in America. Every student – whether white or of color, urban, suburban, or rural – raised their hand. And, in the discussion that followed, it became clear that the rhetoric around Black Lives Matter, and the attention it had raised about police shootings of people of color, had deeply affected each and every one of them. Ideas which seemed unspeakable two years ago are now front and center in my classroom.

In the humanities, intellectual freedom means something deeper than censorship or job security. It has to do with the strata of public discourse in America: what can be said on the surface of formal conversation, and what remains buried. We celebrate Banned Books Week because we celebrate the works that have delved deep into this strata, and brought the deepest ideas to light – but we celebrate this work every day in our classroom, too, by engaging in it ourselves, and participating in larger cultural conversations that make the work possible.  

Much of the time, this work feels frustrating. Everything resists it: the structure of the classroom, the cultural misconceptions everyone brings, even the nature of language itself. No wonder looking at a banned book can be so inspiring: it seems to prove that no powerful idea can be suppressed forever. But I also think that focusing on these individual authors and their books takes some of the focus away from the collective work of digging through the surface layer of discourse for buried truths: difficult, unglamorous work, the results of which are so often invisible.

Because there are also times – like the moment in my classroom when all of my students raised their hands, and I realized the truth about police violence and white supremacy had gone from unspeakable to central – when a formerly banned idea bursts forth into the public discourse. It doesn't do so overnight; it took hundreds of thousands of hours of work by POC activists, doing the frustrating and painful labor necessary to change the conversation around police brutality, and the transformation isn't complete, by any means. My students still have to grapple with the real-world consequences of truths which, until recently, went unspoken. But that doesn't change the fact that – as a direct result of cultural work done by a nation-wide network of activists – an idea which was effectively banned from discourse in a large, urban, public university is now a central topic of debate.

That's why, during Banned Books Week, I want to focus not so much on the books themselves but on what these banned books represent to me: the process (and not necessarily the product) of bringing truths that were previously unspeakable to light. These authors and titles are only one manifestation of this great cultural process. To try to teach a banned idea, no matter how difficult that might be, is to engage in some small way in the process of speaking truth to power – and that, I think, is what intellectual freedom is all about.