Banned Books Week: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Banned Books Week

The American Library Association designates the last week in September as Banned Books Week.  (We’re starting our celebration a little early.)

Their FAQ page explains that a book must be challenged before it is banned, and that most challenges are not successful.  But some are, even if only temporarily – such as the attempt to take Persepolis out of Chicago Public Schools.  The American Library Association points out that most challenges are made with good intentions, such as CPS’s concern that “some students would not be developmentally capable of handling the mature content,” but they strongly believe in the freedom to read.

Fundamentally, the censorship and attempted censorship of books is a First Amendment issue: those who challenge have the right to express their opinions and concerns, and writers have the right to express themselves.  This dissent, rooted on both sides in freedom of speech, is an essential piece of our American democracy.  As such, we’re proud to have an archive full of challenged writers including James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, and Madeline L’Engle.

Toni Morrison, 2008

Today, we’re featuring a 1977 conversation with Toni Morrison about her book Song of Solomon.  The book was #84 on ALA’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999, and had moved up to #72 on the 2000-2009 list.  Morrison’s books Beloved and The Bluest Eye are also on both lists.  Morrison has won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize.

The Conversation

For much of the hour, Studs and Ms. Morrison talk about storytelling, transcendence, memories, and love. Here they talk about the very beginning of the book that sets up for everything else that occurs.


They go on to talk about the women in the book, who Ms. Morrison describes as “the lovers, nurturers, as well as builders.” The story she tells about Not-Doctor Street highlights the conflict between an oral tradition based in memory and the world of “official” memory as kept by bureaucratic records.

The Atlanta Black Star highlights some occasions when the book was challenged; the word “filth” is rather prevalent.  (Check out its entire list of “10 Black Books You May Not Have Known Were Banned or Challenged.”)  The Marshall University Libraries also highlights some instances, and cites “profanity, sexual imagery, and a story line about an incestuous relationship” as possible reasons. In this clip, Studs and Ms. Morrison talk about the relationship between Milkman and Hagar, who are cousins.

But the most upsetting elements in this book may be the facts, not the stories.  Taking a page from the chaos that ensued after the Civil War (and the racially driven apathy that accompanied it, in the best of cases), Ms. Morrison explains how her protagonist, Macon Dead, got his name.  She and Studs go on to talk about instances in which the poor and illiterate in America have been taken advantage of.

There’s a good deal more to the interview, but we didn’t want to spoil the ending of the book!  You can find Song of Solomon at your local library and decide for yourself whether or not it should stay on the shelves.  Scroll down and enter your zip code in the box:

Photo by Angela Radulescu via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0


Sonja Williams on Richard Durham

Recently, we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Sonja D. Williams, Howard University professor, radio producer, and author of Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom.  After a lovely lunch together, she and Tony Macaluso, the STRA Director, sat down and talked about Richard Durham’s innovative work and his connections with Studs Terkel.

Richard and Studs met while working on the WPA Writers’ Project and their friendship and collaboration continued from there.  Richard Durham went on to develop and write the groundbreaking series Destination Freedom and Bird of the Iron Feather (which aired on our sister television station, WTTW Chicago, and one episode of which can be seen here).

In this episode of Destination Freedom, Studs Terkel voices Sammy the Whammy, the ultimate Dodgers fan.

Sonja Williams tells us how the constant theme in Durham’s life was the fight for freedom, justice, and equality.  This fight was never easy, and as she discusses, it required frequent sacrifices from him.  He was truly a Word Warrior, and an inspiration to anyone working to effect social change today.

Durham got to know many of the bright lights in contemporary culture, including Nelson Algren, Muhammad Ali, and Toni Morrison, who also spent some time in Studs’ studio.

Want to learn more about Richard Durham?  His papers are held by the Chicago Public Library, and you can read more about him here and here.

Tags: , , , ,