Durthy A. Washington is a writer, seminar leader, former English professor, and founder of LitUnlocked©, which offers workshops and seminars dedicated to the art of mindful culturally responsive reading.

She is the author of Culturally Responsive Reading: Teaching Literature for Social Justice.

In writing Culturally Responsive Reading, I did not set out to focus on censorship. But in reflecting on one of my central themes—the misreading of literature by writers of color through the lens of Western, Eurocentric culture shaped by the Myth of White Supremacy—I was reminded of the intricate relationship between these two concepts. As has been repeatedly demonstrated—recall the uproar over Ibram X. Kendi’s illustrated children’s book Antiracist Baby (Kokila, 2020)—one reader’s egregious misreading of a text can lead to a writer’s works being banned from bookstores and libraries.

Two works that, unfortunately, did not make it into my book illustrate this fact: Sandra Cisneros’s memoir A House of My Own (Penguin, 2022) and Celeste Ng’s novel Our Missing Hearts (Vintage, 2016).

Cisneros’s memoir, subtitled Stories from My Life, consists of a compilation of personal stories and nonfiction pieces. In a chapter titled “The Author Responds to Your Letter Requesting My Book Be Banned from the School Library” (dated November 11, 2009), Cisneros responds to an irate reader (identified as JP) who demands that The House on Mango Street be removed from her school library after discovering that the book has found its way into the hands of her nine-year-old daughter. Cisneros begins her letter by pointing out that she wrote the book, dedicated to her high school students, twenty-five years ago and that “nine-year-olds are not my . . . target audience.” (Cisneros, 308)

She then proceeds to address some of JP’s objections, primarily the charge that Mango Street features witches. As she patiently explains:

Your fear is a cultural misinterpretation, I suspect. In Mexican culture we have gifted women who are called brujas or curanderas. They are healers, herbalists, visionaries, midwives, advisers, and spiritual guides. Women have these same intuitive gifts in North American culture too, but here they’re called intuitives, counselors, holistic doctors, therapists, psychics, health workers, social workers, nurses, artists, or nuns. (Cisneros, 310)

She also responds to JP’s objection to a statement from her author’s bio which reads, “She is nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife,” apparently interpreted by JP as an indictment of the “traditional” roles of women. Compelled to defend her statement, she explains:

I meant no disrespect to you or anyone who is a wife and mother. I was stating the personal route I had to take in order to become an author. To be nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife was not a choice for me, but a requirement. (Cisneros, 309)

To underscore her frustration at JP’s misreading of Mango Street, Cisneros offers her personal manifesto on the purpose and power of books:

I believe books are medicine. A library is a medicine cabinet. What can heal one person may not work at all for somebody else. You know when something is healing you, just as you know when something isn’t. And if my book isn’t doing the trick and doesn’t serve you, you’re not required to keep reading. But please allow it to remain on the library shelf for someone else who needs its particular medicine. (Cisneros, 310)

Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts has been described as “a story about art, power, and the legacies we pass on to our children.” (Annmarie Kelly podcast “Wild Precious Life,” October 6, 2022). A dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future, it envisions a world in which all “controversial” books have been banned by a corrupt government that—under the guise of patriotism—removes children from their homes as a means of political control. The story is told from the perspective of its twelve-year-old Chinese American narrator, Bird Gardner, whose mother, Margaret, left the family when he was nine years old. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Margaret is a poet whose works have been deemed seditious. The novel compels us to ask several significant questions: How can the actions of a single individual impact the dismantling of an established system? How does art inspire us to connect with our deepest emotions? How can a mother’s love for her son transcend time and space?

In her “Author’s Note,” Ng reflects on several events that inspired her work and addresses some of the themes explored in her novel, including the forced removal of children from their homes, the post-pandemic surge in anti-Asian violence, and the power of art to transform hearts and minds. As she points out:

There is a long history, in the U.S. and elsewhere, of removing children as a means of political control. If this strikes a nerve with you—as I hope it does—please learn more about the many instances, both past and ongoing, in which children have been taken from their families: the separations of enslaved families, government boarding schools for Indigenous children . . . ; the inequities built into the foster care system, the separations of migrant families still occurring at the U.S.’s southern border, and beyond. (Ng, 327)

Shifting to the issue of anti-Asian violence, she notes that “such discrimination has long and deep roots in American history.” (Ng, 328). She continues:

As I wrote this novel, real-life examples were never far from my mind—including Japanese American internment during World War II, Vincent Chin’s 1982 murder, and the Department of Justice’s long-running “China Initiative,” among many others. . . New books on Asian American experiences are being written every year, and I’m grateful to those illuminating the many facets of this complex and ever-expanding topic. (Ng, 328)

Clearly, Ng’s worldview aligns with that of James Baldwin who asserts that, “The role of the artist is to disturb the peace,” as illustrated by her numerous examples of art—especially “guerilla art”—as a focal point for political protest. Her work also stands as a testament to Toni Morrison’s declaration that “the best art is political and you ought to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”

As I anticipate the publication of my book, I am profoundly troubled by the growing trend towards censorship and book banning in my hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a partnership between the Pikes Peak Library District and Focus on the Family (a global Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs) threatens to undermine the library’s role as a safe space that offers access to all. As of this writing, the partnership has prompted contentious discussions between staff and leadership and spawned groups such as Moms for Liberty, determined not only to remove “objectionable” books from library shelves, but to challenge the curriculum content of several school districts, targeting books with LGBTQ+ perspectives as well as those focusing on Black history and antiracism themes. (Johns, G. A. “Banned Wagon,” Colorado Springs Independent, Dec. 7-13, 2022)

As a long-time supporter of my library—which includes a brief stint on its Board of Directors—I resolve to do my part to ensure that it continues to live up to its mission to “cultivate spaces for belonging, personal growth, and strong communities.”

Item #1 on my personal Agenda for Change: Facilitating a book discussion on Our Missing Hearts for the library’s Adult Reading Program.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman