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From September 24 through October 1,  Banned Books Week supports people who love books by celebrating our freedom to do so.  This annual observance is always held during the last week of September, and it calls attention to books and the authors that write them.  One of the many national sponsors for this event, the American Library Association, offers a detailed historical account of how this observance came to be, and an explanation of issues at stake when we allow books to be banned.  As ALA explains it, protesting the content of a book is one thing.  But banning—which advocates the complete removal of a book from existence—is an extreme response that challenges our rights to participate in an exchange of ideas under the First Amendment.

Reading and writing are influential activities, and the power to control these has been a contested idea over the centuries.   One creative approach that University of Oklahoma has chosen to promote, and celebrate, the impact of a diverse array of books, is through its Books That Inspire exhibition in the first floor foyer of the Bizzell Library on the main campus.   Annually, the library director invites faculty and staff members to nominate a book for the exhibition with an essay explaining the book’s impact and meaning to the reader suggesting it.

I am thrilled and honored to be included in the Fall 2011 exhibit, and Banned Books Week gives me yet another opportunity to celebrate my author of choice, Toni Morrison.  According to statistics that have been accumulated about such things, Morrison has the dubious distinction of writing three titles that are among the most frequently challenged books by authors of colorThe Bluest Eye, Beloved, Song of Solomon.

The Morrison book I selected is Paradise, which has not been banned (yet!), but to my view, is an elegant and gritty rendering of so many of the topics she loves to challenge.

Paradise is a novel set in 19th century Oklahoma

It was also a 1998 reading selection of Oprah’s Book Club, and one of the most nuanced interpretations of Oklahoma history and culture that I have ever read.

Here is my essay nominating this book, which is part of the exhibition:

Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise, imagines an Oklahoma landscape that tells a global story, and raises ageless questions.  How do we form bonds of friendship and family?  What makes us fight to protect the place we consider to be the  “home” of our heart’s desire—our own intimate “paradise?”

I personally love Morrison’s writing.  I relish the push and pull integral to her prose.  I accept that she builds her words to be read, parsed, and re-read multiple times. 

Paradise begins with the murder of a woman, and we spend the rest of the novel following Morrison’s circuitous path to uncovering the reasons why.  Set in 1976, in the fictional all-black town of Ruby, OK,  the novel introduces us to the men and women of this small settlement on the edge of obscurity.  Right outside its boundaries, in Convent, is a smaller community of independent women, bound by their mutual pain and expressions of spiritual faith.   The novel opens with violence and crime, through which the shared histories of these two different types of “home” become revealed.

Ruby, OK may be a fictional site, but as Black newspapers recorded, and history tells us, Oklahoma was once a thriving magnet for black towns—more than 50—larger than any other geographic site in the emergent United States.   As the novel tells the story of Ruby from its beginnings, the town’s evolution follows along the currents of our most significant national events: revolution, constitution, relocation, slavery, lynching, and civil unrest.  By the end, Ruby’s future is uncertain and Convent’s past is exposed.    But we understand, in a profound and layered way, the ache and hopeful yearning for the “beloved community” – that idealized place of acceptance where, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “…brotherhood is a reality.” 

What I learned from reading Paradise is that home can be a castle or a hut, but if we’re lucky, each of us can experience the quiet joy of knowing a place to call our own.  Paradise moves me because Morrison captures so poignantly that longing for a home where we feel safe, free and whole. The novel’s tragic events underscore the dangers of desire gone awry. However, reading Paradise while living here teaches me about Oklahoma’s emotional core—the longing for safe places that brought diverse people together in contention and cooperation. I get why people sometimes move, and why others never leave.  It’s all about home.

Celebrate Banned Books Week and read something by a banned author that can inspire you.