Strawberries in Winter
Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings, too.
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.
Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.
-Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1986
Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, was published in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy hearings. Writers such as the preeminent Arthur Miller had to testify in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Were they communists? Had they ever been communists? Could they name other communists? Miller refused to name names and was cited for contempt. His passport was impounded, then returned when the Supreme Court reversed that ruling. He headed to Brussels for the opening of his play The Crucible about the Salem Witch Trials, the foundation story of America's continuing persecuting and censorial spirit, an autocratic—often racist—impulse; it will not quit.
Actors, producers, writers, and directors working for television and Hollywood in the 1950s had to sign loyalty oaths in order to work. In the midst of writing a short biography for Chelsea House Press about Sidney Poitier, I came across references to the possibility that he had done so. I was shocked, but I understood. If he hadn't signed would we have the memory of his important body of work? What a difficult time it was. We have progressed, undoubtedly, but the forces of reaction remain strong. Indeed, the persecuting spirit ricochets back to the landing of the Mayflower, the takeover of stolen land, and the pretense that enslavement was necessary to work that land. These false narratives are part of the American story and they must be faced. Book burnings will not erase the truth of the past, or anything else that is threatening to the status quo, received opinion, or what some educators and politicians consider threatening or subversive.
Last night a writer friend called to tell me she has canceled a trip to Tennessee for a conference because a local school district banned the Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. A local pastor then staged a a live-streamed book burning event. Harry Potter and the Twilight novels, considered "demonic" went up in flames as the crowd cheered, echoes of the KKK, public lynchings, and the May 10, 1933 Nazi book burnings. "With a Jewish last name, I'm not going to risk it," my friend told me. She's staying home.
I'm searching for strawberries in winter. Rich, sweet, succulent fruit. Please tell me there is some available, that there is hope for this democracy, that we are not drifting irrevocably towards the celebration of fascist ideas. Is this one book burning a foreshadowing of worse to come, or has the worst already arrived in the January 6th attempted coup? Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, the cheerleader of the May 10, 1933 book burning, used the code word "debris" to describe the works of Jewish and other German intellectuals. The word "debris" soon morphed/escalated to "cockaroaches." The Jews and other "degenerates" were then murdered en masse.
I am a long time member of PEN America, which is one reason I am writing this post today. For years, this organization, along with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others, advocated and monitored human rights abuses, including censorship and the persecution of writers, in failed states and authoritarian regimes. Much as I am concerned about the shut down of a free press in Hong Kong and the persecution and prosecution of writers all over the world, I am paying much more attention these days to what is going on in school districts and state courthouses in America. I urge my readers to do the same; the mid-term elections are not far away.
PEN AMERICA: https://pen.org/
THE COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS: https://cpj.org/
#censorship #bookburning #bookbanning #protectourwriters #educateourchildren