One World hosted an event Wednesday featuring some of the most celebrated and debated authors of our time for a conversation on what they wished they had learned during their youth.
In honor of Banned Books Week, the Random House imprint invited authors via pre-recorded video interviews such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, and Bryan Stevenson to mark the “annual celebration of the freedom to read” from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2.
“Banning books is something that’s happened for many, many years and then there’s also the long-standing practice of omitting entire histories and identities from school curriculum around this country, as well as the fact that many books simply never get published,” said event co-host Elizabeth Méndez Berry, the One World vice president and executive editor. “One World authors, many of them have actually dedicated their lives to writing the books that they were not able to read coming up.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, said she learned how histories and cultures were wiped away from her schooling when she was younger.
“I didn’t remember if there were certain books my schools were prohibited from teaching us when I was a child, but I do know that there were entire histories, and peoples, that were simply erased,” she said. “I was taught about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and how they were men who made their living off of human bondage, and that their primary occupation was that of being a slave owner.”
The New York Times journalist and Howard University professor also mentioned how Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and other books have been banned from prisons. Helping place books in prisoners’ hands has become a growing civil rights issue with groups such as Noname Book Club starting a program to send books monthly to incarcerated readers.
Heather McGhee, author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, said she didn’t learn about Bacon’s Rebellion until she was learning about labor history in her twenties. The rebellion, which occurred in 1676 ignited by colonists’ failure to steal Native American lands, resulted in the burning of Virginia’s capital of Jamestown and united White indentured servants and Black slaves.
“Once the rebellion was crushed, the colonial plantation elite decided they needed to drive a permanent wedge between White and Black workers to keep them from ever joining forces against them,” she said. “Again, the post-Bacon laws in large part created the system of racial hierarchy that we take for granted as part of our history.”
For modern history, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning author Cathy Park Hong said she didn’t recall learning in school about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and Japanese Americans living in World War II internment camps seemed like a “footnote.”
“In all of my English classes, I don’t recall reading a single novel or short story, or even a poem by an Asian American author,” she said. “Because of this, it took me a long time to realize I had permission to be a writer, because for so long, I didn’t think I had a place in American literature because I had no role models. In my history classes, too, I learned very little, if anything, about Asians in America.”
Race and ethnicity in America wasn’t the only theme. Golem Girl: A Memoir author Riva Lehrer discussed her experience growing up disabled in the 1960s. She said though she went to a top school that wouldn’t put her on the path to becoming a sweatshop worker, there weren’t many discussions on what path she should take.
“What we didn’t get was any idea of what we could be in the world,” said Riva, a queer painter. “We got no encouragement to dream, to think about wanting be an engineer or a doctor or a botanist or all the things that would have been open to people back then at a normal school.”
Banned Books Week started in 1982 after the surge in more books being challenged by schools, libraries, and bookstores around the U.S. The top 10 challenged books of last year can be found here. The event is on YouTube.