Toni Morrison’s portrait on the first-edition dust jacket of The Bluest Eye (via Wikimedia Commons)

Book banning is famously a sign of small minds and rising fascism, and in the United States, even well-known publications that center racism or offer perspectives outside of cis-normative narratives are increasingly under threat. In their continuing effort to maintain access to diverse literature and worldviews, the New York Public Library is observing this year’s Banned Books Week (September 18–24) with a special spotlight on Toni Morrison — whose groundbreaking novels Beloved and The Bluest Eye have frequently spent time on banned books lists. NYPL is offering these two titles for unlimited checkouts through October 31, accessible at in-person locations with a library card as well as online through SimplyE.

“Book banning closes the doors to new experiences, diverse and rich worldviews, and the ability to discover and challenge ideas,” NYPL President Anthony W. Marx said in a statement. “By making these works accessible, we are honoring Toni Morrison’s legacy in allowing people to see themselves, history, and our world in challenging, complex and uncensored ways.” 

The New York Public Library celebrates this year’s Banned Books Week with a spotlight on Toni Morrison, an outspoken advocate for literary freedom. (all images by and courtesy Jonathan Blanc/NYPL)

In addition to unlimited checkouts, the library has planned giveaways of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and other commonly contested books beginning September 19, including picture books, children and young adult titles, classics, and contemporary publications for adults. There is also an array of programming on offer, including a look at the history of book banning; a presentation by photographer Kimberly Butler of images from her collection Censored; and a celebration of Beloved at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

“The thought [of book banning] that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that thought is a nightmare,” Morrison wrote in Burn This Book: Notes on Literature and Engagement, her 2012 collection of essays on censorship. “As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”

Banned books on display at the NYPL

Indeed, Morrison’s nightmare seems to be the utopian vision of conservative politicians, who have driven significant increases in efforts to censor library collections within the past few years, according to the American Library Association (ALA). In response to these all-time highs, the NYPL and others have been making a concerted effort to increase access to banned books, even as other institutions — such as prisons — seek to restrict access to knowledge and history.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, described it as a “dangerous time” for readers and those whose work is connected to the written word.

“Readers, particularly students, are losing access to critical information, and librarians and teachers are under attack for doing their jobs,” Caldwell-Stone said in a statement in May of this year. “It’s time that policymakers understand the severity of this issue.” 

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...