America seems to seethe with contradictory messages. It sings "freedom of speech" and at the same time selectively squelches any voice that is not echoing from scripted riffs. It wears a sporty swag of diversity and equality but sifts carefully through deciding who may enjoy protection under the law. It is what the indigenous called, “speaking with forked tongue,” or just flat out lying about it all. Each year Banned Books Week (Sept. 22-Oct. 6) comes around, I scan the titles as a Black bookseller to see if there are any new titles that I recognize. The titles are separated by the year they were published. Reading some of the titles caused me to laugh out loud.
2020 Banned Black Books
This blog post will focus on books that Afriware Books has sold that were banned at some point in their literary history. If it was up to some institutions’ banned selections, 3 of our Top 10 best selling titles that sold after the heart breaking murder of George Floyd would have been removed. When the nation’s conscience was boiling over with a desire to seek answers and understanding to the world around them, it was these titles that they turned to. Our best sellers during that period are below:
Michelle Alexander’s statistics packed treatise “New Jim Crow” would not have been available if some jail officials had their way. In 2018, it was banned from some NJ prisons as reported in The Guardian. Thankfully, the ban was lifted after the ACLU started questioning officials about it. Alexander gives a scathing account of how Black and brown people have been herded into the prison industrial complex’s system of diabolical profit making terror . We were honored as a bookseller to have been invited to provide books for an event hosted by Phil Jackson’s Black Star Project in 2010. The program is available on Youtube, “The New Jim Crow", by Atty. Michelle Alexander Booksigning (AfriWare) @ Hartzell Church.” Sharon Richardson invited Alexander to speak in Chicago. She partnered with Black Star, Hartzell Church and AfriWare. Though the camera work was blurry, the message is clear. One of the most stinging stats that she shares is that :
There are more African American adults under correctional control, in prison or in jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850 a decade before the Civil War began. As of 2004 more Black men were denied the right to vote than in 1870, the year the 15th amendment was ratified. - Michelle Alexander
This point alone makes the best case for comparing the prison system with Jim Crow laws that institutionalized exploitation and marginalization of people of African descent.
Another book from our best sellers list that suffered the same temporary ban fate was “Just Mercy.” We sold over 100 copies during the protest period. And just for the record, selling this amount of books is unheard of unless we have a book signing with the author of the book. And, that author would have to be a celebrity likely discussing some topic that went viral. The book is about an unjustly accused prisoner who was released from death row after serving for 6 years. The movie version of the book was released in 2020.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) prisons in Kansas and North Carolina decided to “exclude books on civil rights, especially by black authors.” Afriware Books, Co has sent quite a few books to prisoners on behalf of our customers. Years ago, the determining factor of a book rejection was whether it was hardcover or softcover. The rationale was that hardcover books could have been used as weapons. Now the content of the books are getting their attention. The EJI went so far as to file a lawsuit on behalf of a prisoner just to be able to read a book.
The power of books is understood across the board.
Imagining a world without Malcolm X’s Autobiography as told to Alex Haley would be one bereft of clear insights on understanding a society hyper focused on subjugation and demoralization of Black people. By analyzing the historical context of the plight of Black people, and lifting our cultural self-esteem, Malcolm X stands up for our humanity and dignity. If some school teachers in New York, as reported in the NY Daily News, had their way, their students would not be able to give a report during Black History Month on this powerful leader because he was considered “bad” and “violent.” That book is one of the “Top 10 Banned Books on Black History” reported by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). My bookstore, Afriware Book, Co saw a spike in sales for the book. We sold over 150 copies after the murder of George Floyd. And according to Forbes.com, we joined many other booksellers around the country that experienced the same. Selling this quantity of books is astonishing given the number of years since its publication in 1965 by Grove Press. It is clear from the titles on our best sellers list that he public was seeking to peep behind the “Iron Curtain” of so-called popular books and read from primary sources on the Black experience in America.
The last book I’ll discuss that was on the banned book list and one of our best sellers was “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-Winning Stamped from the Beginning.” It is the young adult version of “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi. One school system ordered over 500 in the aftermath of world events from Afriware Books, Co. I mentioned this title in another blog called, “ BLACK YA FICTION BOOKS TO CLOSE OUT 2020.“ Schools who’ve decided to update and adjust their curriculum to more effectively reach students by creating conversations that combine current and historical events, utilized books like "Stamped - Remix." The American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom blog discusses the jump in sales and curriculum adjustments in the article, “Challenge to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: Q&A with Aidan Larson." While author Jason Reynolds admit his book is, “not a history book,” it addresses historical topics from a cultural perspective. I was delighted to find even a mention of The 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma massacre and The Black Panther Party, for example. He updates terminology by providing definitions young people can relate to and, most importantly question. He says for example, “Segregationists are haters. Like real haters. People who hate you for not being like them.” It is a simplified definition using contemporary language. From that standpoint, people can identify and distance themselves as feels appropriate. The term “hater” also suggests that even the segregationist’s actions are suspect to analysis. The history books I remember never called these actions into question. It was just the way it was, like it or leave it, but don’t question it. Just memorize it to get a good grade on the exam.
But I digress.
The banned books on the list from 2020 are shared so that YOU can decide. Read at your own discretion and decide for yourself. Censorship, would have prevented the ideas and information from reaching you. Life changing books like “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” that have inspired millions of people would not have been heard.
Banned Black Books published 1994-2019 source American Booksellers Association, Ingram Book Group filtered Ethnic Orientation/African American authors
As always, I appreciate that you have read through this blog post. I hope that you’ve become curious to read more banned Black books. We ask that you consider purchasing your books from our Black owned bookstore, Afriware Books, Co. If there is a title you’d like to purchase that is not mentioned here, or could not be found on the website, feel free to email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org