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March 23, 2011

What do Martin Luther, the early 16th-century German theologian, and Judy Blume, the contemporary young adult author have in common?

They both wrote banned books.

Luther’s writings criticized the Catholic Church for practices such as selling “indulgences”—believed to absolve a person from sin; Blume wrote, among other novels, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, in which the main character shares her adolescent angst over events such as the onset of her menstrual cycle.

One writer set the Protestant Reformation into motion. The other is credited with helping to make more positive, the ways girls view their bodies. And both are on the syllabus for a new Special Topics course, "Banned Books: Literature & Censorship," taught by Assistant Professor of English Tali Noimann.

Censorship’s common thread

“Throughout history,” says Noimann, “societies have banned books for different reasons…every generation and every culture has its own reasons, but the one thread that combines all of them is usually, ‘the corruption of youth’.”

That rationale, it turns out, doesn’t sit well with the “youths” in Noimann’s class.

“I’ve gotten two reactions from students,” she says. “The first is, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this is actually happening!’ and the second is outrage…surprise, because they didn’t know that this kind of censorship existed around them—and because of them; 'for them'—and that makes them angry.”

Students relate to the topic for other reasons, as well. “It’s interesting to see why books are banned and people are silenced,” says Cynthia Rivera. “Sometimes in school you can’t say your opinion, and I’ve felt silenced.”

Noimann’s own interest in censorship arose when she was barely a “youth,” herself, and took a copy of Irma La Douce, the daring French comedy, from her grandfather’s library.

“I don’t remember thinking there was anything wrong or troubling with it,” Noimann recalls, “but the next day, the book was gone from the shelf because they realized I’d read it—and that was my first encounter with banning of a book. It’s on the backs of children, and that’s why I think education majors, among others, should be aware of and be taught about this problem.”

The right to rebel

Noimann, who describes herself as “a proud product of New York City’s public education system,” graduated with honors from Hunter College before earning a Ph.D. in English Literature from The Graduate School and University Center in 2007.

One of her research areas is Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature, exploring “complex issues of culture, gender and politics.”

Her banned books class invites English, Education, History, and Criminal Justice majors, as well as “students with a sense of rebelliousness, eager to read forbidden texts,” and Noimann holds them all to rigorous discussion standards: grounding opinions in fact, referring to the text, and respecting each other’s points of view.

“I took this class because I knew it would increase my critical thinking,” says Lady Moronte, and Lauren Arneson adds, “I’m here because I’m a huge fan and supporter of the First Amendment,” which protects freedom of speech, peaceable assembly and other rights.

Arneson’s comment brings up Noimann’s reasons for proposing the Special Topics class, in the first place.

“In a country where we do have and are very proud of the First Amendment, how is it possible that we are still facing such oppression of free speech? In a country where Ku Klux Klan manuals and Nazi literature are allowed to be published, books like Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret are being made unavailable to children to read.”

Banned for being anti-capitalistic

The first unit the class covers, Noimann says, “is anti-capitalistic literature. We start with Marx and then read Sinclair’s The Jungle.”

With those texts to ground their analysis, the students examine Natalie Babbitt’s young adult classic, Tuck Everlasting, “which is about the evils and amorality of capitalism,” says Noimann, “and it was incredibly timely to start with this particular issue because of what is going on now with union bashing.”

Connecting current censorship with past repression is more than an intellectual activity for the class.

“I think the banned books I’ve read are some of the most interesting I’ve read,” says Noimann’s student, Kelly Shaw. “I like it that the professor ties in current events, such as the revolution in Egypt and the financial crisis here in the United States.”

They’ve also watched the banned 1954 film, Salt of the Earth, “which is about immigrant workers,” Noimann says, “and their struggles against the mining management where they work—and that was something that struck home.”

In the end, the students are expected to have developed their own, expanded view of censorship.

“They have reorganized their lives to be in this class,” says Noimann. “They do understand the value of being able to read anything they want, and not having anybody tell them what’s good for them and what’s not good for them…that questioning authority is vital to the education process.”

Banned on religious grounds

“We’re going to read Martin Luther,” Noimann says, in the unit on religious-based banning of books, “then we’re going to move on to Baruch Spinoza, and then Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because I wanted to give them a sampling of writings on every major religion.”

The young adult book she combines with these readings is The Golden Compass, a fantasy novel published in 1995 by Philip Pullman, and featuring the character Lyra—whose attempts to rescue a friend are thwarted by an institution resembling the Catholic Church.

This book, says Noimann, “even today is being challenged by the Church of England mainly, but also by the Religious Right, for its anti-Christian views.”

One of the ways the students process these complexly related materials is to give a brief talk. Dressed in shirt and tie and referring to index cards, Steven Willock described Martin Luther’s life and career, and offered this summation: “He’s saying, don’t help the Pope, help the people.”

He also compared Luther’s strategy for disseminating information to that of Karl Marx, who the class had studied in a previous unit, and who encouraged people, Willock said, “to use technology to forward the revolution.” Luther, he added, “used technology like we do with FaceBook and Twitter,” through the printing press.

Banned on racial grounds

The third unit, Noimann says, examines “books that are banned on racial grounds, so we’re going to look at Uncle Remus Tales; we’re going to read Little Black Sambo and Nappy Hair”—the last of which is a picture book by Brooklyn writer, Carolivia Herron.

The class will also look at the controversy over NewSouth Books’ just-released version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, in which the word “nigger” was removed and replaced with “slave.”

“It’s a blunt example of the kind of misguided decisions that people make when it comes to books for children,” says Noimann.

“It shows incredible under-estimation of what children are capable of understanding, and it also shows the inability of teachers to trust in their own instincts and understand how to teach a text within its own historical context…”

By censoring vocabulary in Huckleberry Finn, Noimann says, “they may think they’ve ‘cleaned it up’, but what they really have done is absolutely nothing, because the entire book, every single episode, every conversation, every character Mark Twain has created is the embodiment of the racist South he lived through, that he wanted us to forever remember.”

Censoring sex

“The fourth unit is going to be books that are banned on sexual grounds,” says Noimann, “which is the most popular. So we’re going to start by reading the uncensored Arabian Nights, and then the uncensored Fairy Tales, both of which were written for adults and are incredibly racy.”

Discussions of these books will inform the students’ analysis of the why the young adult novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume is so often banned from school libraries and other centers of learning.

“I thought it would bring back all the issues that we’ve discussed through the semester,” Noimann says, “the religious and political, the anti-capitalistic—all in one book.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Join Professor Tali Noimann for BMCC’s Second Annual International Book Day Marathon Reading, a group reading of the banned book, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Tuesday, April 12 from 10 a.m. to 12 noon in the Students Cafeteria Lounge at 199 Chambers Street.

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  • A new Special Topics course, Banned Books: Literature & Censorship is taught by Professor Tali Noimann
  • Students examine the historical, social and political reasons behind book banning
  • Throughout history and across cultures, censorship’s common thread is “the corruption of youth”

share this story »