Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher
verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(That was just a prelude, wherever man burns books, he will also burn people in the end.)
— Heinrich Heine
This year, a lot of my academic work has been focused on the impact of conservative legislation in and around K-12 curriculum restrictions. Though I teach college level classes now, I spent nearly a decade in K-12 classrooms before making the transition, so I understand how oppressive and challenging it can be to teach within the parameters of conservative oversight. In fact, I transitioned to the college sector in large part because I feared that my explicit references to systemic oppression would ultimately get me fired. Ironically, Texas now faces the possibility that even higher education institutions will be subject to curriculum changes and censorship borne of the conservative attack on public education.
With Banned Books Week around the corner, it seems an ideal time to engage with poetry and its connection to the history of book banning. The above quote from Heine is one of the most oft-quoted lines about book burning, referring to the burning of the Quran as a prelude to the burning of people. Though book burning may appear historically and practically extreme in comparison to book bans, consider that one of the guiding principles of book burning is public spectacle. While conservatives may not be hosting literal bonfires to burn books in 2022, the removal of books from school libraries, classrooms and even neighborhood libraries is often orchestrated as a public event. Images of men hauling boxes and boxes of books from public institutions proliferate media across the South, for example.
We Real Cool
As I researched poems that have been censored in classrooms, I was surprised to find Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” on the list. Today, the poem is frequently anthologized and celebrated as one of Brooks’ most successful pieces. However, school districts in the South apparently banned the poem in the 1970s, arguing that the reference to Jazz was innately sexual. James Baldwin seems to echo this reading in his essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Though Baldwin asserts that “Jazz…is a very specific sexual term,” he argues that “white people purified it into the Jazz Age.” Brooks, for her part, addressed the controversy herself, remarking that her use of “Jazz” was not intended to be sexual but as a metaphor for rebellion in general.
Introducing this poem to offers a unique opportunity for students to hear what many consider a canonical poet read the poem aloud herself, and to hear her explicitly address the poem’s history of being banned. Brooks briefly contextualizes the poem before she reads, pointing out that her initial inspiration for the poem was to imagine how a group of young Black men might feel about themselves as they shot pool. Notably, she imagines that they might feel contemptuous about the establishment, which grounds the poem in rebellion. Given that Brooks believes the group to be school-aged, their decision to shoot pool instead of attend class offers an intriguing opportunity for discussion.
Possible discussion questions:
- Brooks associates public school with the establishment. How do current legislative efforts to sanitize public school curricula support this association? Does Brooks’ poem reinforce James Baldwin’s assertion that America has never been interested in educating Black children except insofar as it benefits White America?
- Are the players at The Golden Shovel participating in a conscious resistance against the establishment? In what way(s)?
- Arguments in favor of banning this poem center “Jazz” as an innately sexual term; however, Brooks herself presents the poem as anti-establishment. Do you think school districts are actually more concerned with the message of Black resistance? Why?
Educators may want to introduce students to the history of school walkouts, particularly in relation to various Civil Rights era movements. For historical context, students might read excerpts from the list of demands provided during the East L.A. Walkouts, as well as a brief description of the South Bend Washington High School walkout. Connect these to contemporary responses from young people, who staged nationwide walkouts to protest gun legislation in 2018 and, more recently, walkouts in protest of banned book lists that limit representation of historically marginalized communities in school libraries.
The Burning of Paper Instead of Children
Adrienne Rich, a contemporary of Gwendolyn Brooks and a known proponent of art as activism, has also had her work banned in classrooms across the country. Her poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” is a powerful rebuke of censorship and its impact on young people. In the first section of the poem, the speaker receives a call that her son and the caller’s son burned their mathematics textbooks in celebration of the end of the school year. The caller prohibits his own son from leaving the house for a week and the speaker’s son from visiting for a week, telling the speaker that the scene “arouses terrible sensations in me, memories of Hitler; there are few things that upset me so much as the idea of burning a book.”
As the section continues, the speaker recalls books of her own, including The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc, that she was prohibited from reading. “And they take the book away/because I dream of her too often,” the speaker laments. The section closes with an allusion to knowledge of the oppressor, an idea that returns in the final lines of the second section, when the speaker declares, “knowledge of the oppressor/this is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.” Here, Rich introduces two ideas that could facilitate valuable discussion:
- The history of censorship and book banning/book burning correlates directly with efforts to suppress knowledge of the oppressor and the oppressor’s tactics.
- Participating in the language of the oppressor is problematic, but sometimes necessary, as a tool to dismantle systems of oppression.
The third section of the poem is comprised almost entirely of an inscription which lists numerous examples of inequity and injustice, most of which disproportionately affect children of color. In the fourth section, the speaker describes the aftermath of sex with her lover. She alludes to the fact that this scene has appeared in books for centuries, but the books themselves are useless. The final lines of the section look outward at the connection between censorship and erasure as the speaker warns, “no one knows what may happen/though the books tell everything/burn the texts said Artaud.”
The last section grapples with the fact that book burning does not elicit a sensation in the speaker, yet she recognizes the pain associated with burning and acknowledges that she cannot touch her lover in the oppressor’s language. Here, students might consider how many of us internalize our oppression to the point of apathy, and how censorship actively perpetuates that apathy by limiting our language of resistance.
Like Brooks, Adrienne Rich speaks directly to the practice of censorship and its relationship to her work as a poet. Students might listen to or read Rich’s letter to former President Bill Clinton refusing to accept the National Medal for the Arts. In the letter, Rich argues that “art — in my own case the art of poetry — means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage,” suggesting that accepting the award while injustice continues to plague everyday Americans runs counter to her activist approach to artistic creation. She considers this in more detail in her essay, “Arts of the Possible,” a 19-page rebuke of the establishment and its use of propaganda to perpetuate oppression.
One of the most powerful passages in Rich’s essay, for me, is this:
But these are also my concerns as a poet, as the practitioner of an ancient and severely-tested art. In a society in such extreme pain, I think these are any writer’s, any artist’s concerns: the unnamed harm to human relationships, the blockage of inquiry, the oblique contempt with which we are depicted to ourselves and to others, in prevailing image-making; a malnourishment which extends from the body to the imagination itself…This devaluation of language, this flattening of images, results in a massive inarticulation, even among the privileged. Language itself collapses into shallowness.
What both Brooks and Rich speak to is the colonization of language and, by extension, the colonization of thought. Poetry acts as a direct resistance to propaganda and the establishment in that it subverts the oppressor’s language, infusing and layering the very language used to suppress communities with meanings far beyond those intended by the oppressor. They are, in effect, challenging the idea that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house insofar as language, and especially poetry, governs thought.
Poetry is, then, the perfect response to censorship and book banning; students have the opportunity to use critical thinking skills and interpretative responses, witness the ways in which historically marginalized voices co-opt the language of the oppressors to incite resistance, and even empower themselves through the creation of poetry that responses to the current political moment. This Banned Books Week, educators can reestablish poetry as one the earliest and most pervasive genres of activism, circumventing attempts to censor thought through the careful selection of poems that illustrate radical, deliberate resistance.