Banned Books Awareness: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”


Written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” tells the story of Janie Crawford, a 16-year-old whose grandmother decides to marry her off to a well-respected man in the community.

Fellow censored author, Alice Walker, had this to say about the book: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

Walker was an exception, though; as the novel’s negative public reaction came mostly from black critics and essayists. Interestingly, the positive reviews came from the white mainstream press.

The poor reception resulted from Hurston’s rejection of Racial Uplift literature- an ideology that educated blacks are responsible for the welfare of the majority of the race-, which was a response to the denial of African-American civil and political rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, however, it has come to be regarded as a pivotal work in both African-American and women’s literature. TIME magazine has included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

In 1927, long before writing her novel, Hurston traveled the South to collect folk songs and tales through an anthropological research fellowship and the setting of the all-black Eatonville is based on the real, all-black town of the same name in which Hurston grew up. The town’s weekly announced in 1889, “Colored People of the United States: Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.”

Since its publication, there has been objection to the language in the novel. These objections haven’t been about profanity but rather a criticism against characters speaking in a phonetic dialect, which is taken by some to be a mocking of how English is spoken among the black community.

Hurston’s rejection to the Racial Uplift efforts was that it presented African Americans in a way that would accommodate the cultural standards of the white majority and she asserted that her writing was distinct from other works of the Harlem Renaissance- which she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, subjugated, and poor. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern communities as she saw them and especially refused to censor women’s sexuality, using innuendo to embrace the physical length of Janie’s various romances.

Add to that a story dealing with rape, inter-racial relationships, murder (even if it was in self-defense), and forced marriage it illustrates how it would be considered controversial from the start, but these subjects are just as emotionally charged in modern times: in 1997, a parent complained of language and sexual explicitness to the Stonewall Jackson High School in Brentsville, Virginia. After debate it was retained in their advanced reading list.

Janie’s story is one of self-identity and control of one’s own fate. Nearly 80 years after being published, its underlying theme of a journey toward self-realization still shoots right to the heart of readers of all ages and backgrounds. Humans, who are walking, running, and, sometimes, blindly stumbling along life’s path toward a common goal of personal fulfillment.

The power and importance of this universal struggle is summed up in a passage toward the end of the book, when Janie’s home is about to be destroyed by a hurricane:

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Celebrating Freedom: Banned Books Week 2014


I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the power of Banned Books Week than to share something wonderful and deeply touching.

In the last several months leading up to this year’s Banned Books Week I have been humbled and honored to read and share comments and letters I have received from people all over the world touched and inspired by the work of Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge. Some of them have been words of gratitude and some have included pictures of banned book displays- such as my most recent column about a California bookstore.

In January I shared an email I received from a woman dealing with a censorship effort at her former high school of Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye and several other titles. You can read about it in my article, A Multitude of Drops. Tonight I received an update to that effort and knew immediately that I had to share it.

“I’m not sure I ever updated you on the progress of my campaign with my former high school. I’ve been to your website numerous times since and returned today figuring you’d have something awesome posted about Banned Books Week and I was right! Reading your newest post just reminded me the power we have to speak up for books. My former school did not ban THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison and other titles have remained in the library as well. I posted a few months ago about book banning and the power of books on my blog and mentioned some of the amazing things you had to say as well. But this being Banned Books Week, I thought I would speak about it again, as you encouraged me to do so many months ago. If you’d like you can check out the post on my blog written under my pen name here: Kayla King Books: Beware the Book

I just wanted to thank you again for your wonderful website and the resource it offers other readers and even people who don’t understand the power of books. At the end of the day, I suppose it’s nice to know there are people like you willing to stand up for something that simply shouldn’t happen. Books are too important to turn a blind eye to this issue. So thank you (one last time) for making people see how important stories and words are to the world.”



Imagine what can be accomplished and what kind of world we could build if everyone had the willingness to act instead of mutter “Well, I just (insert excuse here)…”

Whether it is censorship, general injustice, or whatever issue you hold dear, this underscores in a huge way just how powerful and meaningful a single voice can be. Let these stories of courageous people inspire you to stand up for truth and freedom. I am proud of each of these people. I welcome and applaud their efforts to  stand against ignorance, fear, and intolerance.

Total darkness can not exist amid a single flicker of light. Set the world ablaze with light!

Lighting a Fire One Match at a Time


September marks a return to regular classes here in the United States. With the cultural focus on all things scholastic, it is also the time of year when our freedom to read is celebrated by the America Library Association’s Banned Books Week, which will be September 21-27, 2014.

Libraries, bookstores, and classrooms around the country create displays and hold events during this week to highlight classic and contemporary literature that has been challenged or outright banned here and elsewhere around the world.

It warms my heart to see the many wonderful displays and makes me happy as a reader and as a lover of the written word in all of its forms.

As a professional and part of the literary community, I am honored, flattered, and humbled when my work and my words inspire others.

Since Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge began in 2011 I have received emails and messages from around the world. Many are gratitudes for the articles I have written, some are examples of how students and teachers have been influenced by the cause. I have even seen many instances where the articles themselves have been used in formal classroom assignments from grade school to universities.

I have also been pleased to receive images of banned book displays proudly showcasing the rich tapestry of literature that this world has to offer. It is icing on the cake to also find that these displays also either include or prominently feature the articles and works from this column.

For example, this year brings a message from Sandra Drescher, from the Inkopelli bookstore in Tehachapi, California. She writes:

“I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your website.  It has been invaluable for me while I’ve been doing research for my store’s Banned Books promotion (I’ve credited you and referred customers to your site, of course).  I have also found the site to be interesting personally, and imagine I’ll be returning to it often.  Thanks for being here!”

Here are images of the display that she sent to me.

Sandra, I was so happy to hear your kind words and gladly share them with other lovers of the written word. Thank you for being another flame in the torch of freedom that pushes back the darkness of ignorance and intolerance.