November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

So People Disagree. Is This a Problem? | Up for Debate

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Joan Bertin

The publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington elicited a great deal of commentary, much of it angrily claiming that the book is racist. At first, its publisher, Scholastic Press, stood by the book, stating the truism that “no single book will be acceptable to every reader.” Two days later the company changed course, announcing that it was withdrawing A Cake for George because it “may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.”

To its critics, the decision was an easy call. How on Earth did someone decide that a children’s picture book depicting ‘smiling slaves’ was a good idea? They argued that the book perpetuates a false narrative, obscuring the cruelty and injustice of slavery. Some saw the book as the inevitable product of a predominantly white publishing industry. But this case actually provided a notable exception: The creative team behind the book is composed of women of color who most certainly did not intend to “whitewash” history. According to them, the intent was to show “the joy in what [the characters] have created through their intelligence and culinary talent,” even while acknowledging the “vast injustice” of slavery. For critics, however, good intentions are not enough to save a book that they think sends an incorrect and even dangerous message to impressionable children.

No one questions the right to raise pointed criticisms about literature or artistic works, or to question the accuracy of historical accounts. Publishers confronted with such criticism face a dilemma; Scholastic withdrew the book, but claimed that decision had nothing to do with the controversy—the book was pulled “because it did not meet the standards which support our publishing mission.” Even if this is true, the sequence of events is suggestive to those on both sides of the decision. In fact, some of those who pressed for the book’s withdrawal claim that their campaign prompted Scholastic’s decision. Citing their victory, some are now targeting eight other books which they want Scholastic to withdraw because they “do not accurately portray Native peoples.”

This should come as no surprise. The withdrawal of a book after objections about its content or message inevitably invites demands to remove other books, and the history of book censorship proves that almost no book is safe from attack.  From Shakespeare to Faulkner, Twain to Morrison, the Bible to the Koran, literature has always caused offense, and the offended have always sought to remove the offending item. And this is true for all kinds of books. Just recently, a popular children’s book mentioning a gay character was removed from school book fairs out of fear that it might offend some parents. This is why free speech advocates defend books as a matter of principle, not as a statement of their value: experience teaches us that there is no place to draw a line. The book you hate may be the book I love, and vice versa.

Should a publisher ever withdraw a book?  Publishers, of course, have the “right” to pull any book. Their decision would probably not be questioned if it was done to remove egregious errors or defamatory statements.  But when the decision is, or appears to be, in response to objections to specific ideas or views, it’s more problematic. We need publishers and the media generally to provide access to a wide range of ideas, even ones that are controversial and possibly wrong-headed. What we do with them is up to us. Sometimes truths are revealed only by exploring falsehoods.

Withdrawing a book from circulation—which makes it disappear as effectively as burning—is a dangerous course. The book is gone.  By the same logic, other books will also disappear, or never be written. But there’s another compelling cause for concern: Censorship often works against those who are the most marginalized—historically, women, minorities, and dissidents.

Maybe A Birthday Cake for George Washington would, as its critics claim, encourage readers to downplay the evils of slavery. Alternatively, perhaps readers would take pride in its characters’ improbable accomplishments.  Would the book have generated additional discussion and debate, or spurred interest in the history of slavery or in Washington’s role as a slave owner?  Perhaps, but unfortunately we’ll never know.


Joan Bertin is executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Bertin is a graduate of NYU Law School, where she was a fellow in the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program. After law school, she spent seven years representing indigent clients as a legal services lawyer, and more than a dozen litigating civil rights and civil liberties cases at the ACLU. She has taught at Columbia University, where she remains on the faculty, and at Sarah Lawrence College, where she held the Joanne Woodward Chair in Public Policy, but prefers activism to academia. She frequently speaks and writes on legal and policy issues, and is the author of more than 30 chapters and articles in professional books and journals.

Recalling a Book: Bowing to Pressure, or Righting Wrongs?
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Comments

  1. More people would rather not feel uncomfortable than support the principle of Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” In the balance between free speech and discomfort, discomfort wins. The latest Pew research is that 40% of millennials would support a revision of the First Amendment so that it it would not cover offensive speech.