Taking a Look at Banned Books: English department holds second annual Banned Book Jam for Black History Month


“The thought 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. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”

This quote from Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison fell over the Tucker Theater, sitting with the audience as it listened to excerpts read from banned books written by Black authors.

Friday, Feb. 23, the College of William and Mary’s English department put on its second Banned Book Jam, in celebration of Black History Month. Faculty members and students read passages from a variety of texts that have been challenged publicly, including “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin and “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois. 

English Department student assistants Abby Paras ’24 and Shawna Alston ’25 planned the event together. Paras explained they wanted to expand on the concept behind the first Banned Book Jam that was held this past October.

“We kind of took that idea and we put our own spin on it for Black History Month, especially because so many books by Black authors have been banned specifically for the fact that they talk about race, Blackness, issues of racial injustice as they pertain to Black people in America,” Paras said. “So, because there are so many options to choose from, we thought that this would be a really interesting way to kind of celebrate the work of Black authors while also bringing attention to the kind of themes that are banned among literature in the U.S.”

Morrison’s novels regularly circulate the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. Alston chose to read a passage from Morrison’s Beloved, on behalf of the College’s Black Poet Society. 

“I know most college students who took honors English classes had to read either ‘Beloved’ orSong of Solomon’ when they were in high school,” Alston said. “And if they didn’t, they’re familiar with other people who read ‘Beloved’ in high school. I chose ‘Beloved,’ one because it’s just a really good book, but also because it’s something that almost all of us are familiar with, and because almost all of us are familiar we’ll pay more attention to the fact that it’s getting banned.”

Assistant Teaching Professor of English Addie Tsai was the first reader of the event, delivering an excerpt of “The Color Purple.” As a preface, Tsai made sure to make mention of how informative reading this book was during their childhood.

In a similar vein, Reeves Wilder ’25, reading on behalf of the College’s Gallery Literary Magazine, presented her passage from “Beloved” with her personal sentiment towards the impact of the novel.

“I thinkBeloved’ is just one of those iconic books that when you read it, you think to yourself, ‘Why is this banned? Why do people not want you to read this in high school?’ because it’s so formative,” Wilder said. “But for me personally, it was one of the first books that I read in high school that made me fall in love with English again, because for a long time, I felt in English class, really unfulfilled, by the way it was run by the school. And when I read ‘Beloved,’ I really felt the love of literature coming through the book.”

According to a report conducted by Pen America, 30% of banned books in America include either characters that are people of color or themes related to race and racism. Speaking to this point, Alston views the Banned Book Jam as an opportunity to demonstrate the way that these mass book bans disproportionately target books that are written by and about marginalized groups. 

“Having an event where everyone can read a book by a Black person that has been banned can kind of exhibit the monstrosity of the fact that almost all of the books being banned are about Black people,” Alston said.

Alston emphasized that by acknowledging that a book written by a Black person has been banned and reading it in context, the work itself becomes that much more relevant.

“Acknowledging that you’re reading a banned book contextualizes it as we read it, because now you’re trying to understand why the book is banned,” Alston said. “You’re trying to understand what about this book is so offensive? And nine times out of ten, it’s just the fact that it’s about Black people, or just the fact that it’s about queer people, or the fact that it’s about indigenous people. Like there’s no real reason other than the subject matter or the author even. I do also think that sometimes we should just read these books for what they are, and that is really, really good books. And we shouldn’t let racist lawmakers determine our engagement with these books. But I’m more leaning to the fact that reading them as ‘banned books’ can teach us about our systems and where our laws are, where our policymakers are, and where we are as a society that we are banning books strictly because they are by and about Black people.”

Paras also viewed the event as an opportunity to counteract the effect that banning books can have on students that are a part of marginalized groups.

“There are going to be a lot of Black students, Black queer students, Black female students, things like that, who are going to want to be reading these books and see that representation,” Paras said. “And by banning these, it’s kind of almost in a way letting these students know that they’re alone or there’s something wrong or something is bannable about them and about their experiences.”

Chair of the English Department Brett Wilson introduced his reading from “The Souls of Black Folk” by summarizing the essence of the goals that Paras and Alston had for the event. 

It’s so important to celebrate Black books and Black knowledge and the pain and the joy that are always part of what Black people pour out into words, and these are the words that can never be silenced, must never be silenced,” Wilson said. “We’re gathered here today to fight back against the notion of banning things that make people uncomfortable.”

Wilder agreed that the messages of certain institutions must be challenged when they actively work to suppress the voices of diverse people. 

“If you just accept what an organization or what people in power tell you without critically thinking on your own, then you aren’t able to assess why this has been recognized as obscene or inappropriate for high schoolers, and I guess it’s just important to garner those critical thinking skills for yourself,” Wilder said.

The Banned Book Jams, from the perspectives of organizers and attendees alike, provide a space for students at the College to challenge the notion that the ability for a book to provide representation for its readers should be deemed controversial. Paras and Alston hope to plan more jams later this semester to celebrate other marginalized communities, such as during Pride Month and Asian Pacific Islander History Month. According to Alston, the presence of books written by Black authors matters not only for people of color, but also for the wider literary landscape.

“Nine times out of ten, if you read a good book, you’ve read a good book by a Black person,” Alston said.


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