Reading & Literacy Opinion

Harry Potter and His Censors

By Jonathan Zimmerman — August 02, 2000 6 min read
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When it comes to public schooling, everyone’s a censor—even people who rail against censorship.

On July 8, 2000, at 12:01 a.m., my local bookstore hosted a “Midnight Moonlight Sale” in honor of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. That was too late for my 7-year-old daughter, who had already plowed through the previous three Harry Potter volumes and couldn’t wait to get her hands on the fourth. So we went to sleep early, got plenty of rest, and arose in time for the bookstore’s “Harry Potter Breakfast” at 8 o’clock the next morning. We munched on “Magic Muffins,” watched magic tricks by the “Amazing Vindini,” and competed in a “Harry Potter Trivia Contest.”

Then, of course, we bought the book.

All across Potterland, formerly known as the United States, parents and children enacted similar rituals. But one important group of Americans, we are told, did not participate: evangelical Christians. Although some evangelicals defend the Harry Potter series, large numbers have condemned the books for allegedly promoting witchcraft and the occult. Some critics even contend that the novels are the work of the Devil himself.

We can expect evangelical Christians’ attacks on the Harry Potter books to escalate this fall.

Other evangelicals have demanded that schools purge Harry Potter from libraries and classrooms. The American Library Association reports that at least 13 states witnessed attacks on the Harry Potter novels last year, making them the most challenged books of 1999. Given the enormous publicity and forecasted sales of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we can expect the attacks to escalate when schools reopen in September.

As a parent and an educator, I am deeply alarmed that children less fortunate than my own might not get a chance to enjoy the wit, energy, and, yes, the magic of Harry Potter. But I am also troubled by the knee-jerk reaction of the education community to the books’ critics, who have been too easily dismissed as ignoramuses and “censors.”

The books’ critics have been too easily dismissed as ignoramuses and “censors.”

In a recent letter, for example, the chair of the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee deemed the charges against the Harry Potter books “laughable.” Meanwhile, a new coalition called the “Free Expression Network"—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of Teachers of English, and People for the American Way—warned that the removal of Harry Potter books could unleash a veritable avalanche of school-based censorship.

If a school banned Harry Potter to appease evangelical sensitivities, the coalition warned, it would also have to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to meet black objections. Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” would be eliminated, too, lest Jews take offense. Next would come books by Tennessee Williams and Sigmund Freud, whom female students could justly critique as sexist.

Slippery-slope arguments against censorship aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re disingenuous.

The problem with slippery-slope arguments of this sort is not that they’re wrong. Instead, they’re disingenuous. When it comes to public schooling, everybody is a censor. Even people who rail against censorship want to include certain messages and exclude others, as well they should.

If you think you’re not a censor, take a look at New York City’s 1951 English curriculum. You’ll find a play by Harold Bates entitled The King’s English, approved for use in city high schools. The play is set on the mythical island of Karra Wanga in the South Seas, ruled jointly by an American, Ripley O’Rannigan, and by a local cannibal, Kawa Koo. When an American boat is shipwrecked on the island, Kawa announces that he and his men will eat all 20 survivors. Following a plea from Ripley, however, Kawa agrees to allow him to save a single passenger.

Ripley decides to select the survivor who speaks the best English. This idea raises the hackles of the ship’s lone Jewish passenger, Perlheimer, who “talks with both hands” as he berates Ripley. Here is part of their dialogue:

"Inklish? Vat for I speak Inklish? I read Yiddische papers. I talk Yiddish mit mein friends. I live by mein own people." "You're a poor sort of American....There are good Jews and bad ones, the former being typified by the merchant Nathan Strauss, and the latter by people like Perlheimer." "I keep by mein own ways." "You may have him, Kawa! America doesn't want him. He's indigestible."

With good reason, black and Jewish groups loudly objected to the presence of this play in New York schools. Blacks also blasted Little Black Sambo primary school readers, featuring the shiftless, carefree African clown of American folklore. Whereas the city quickly removed The King’s English, Sambo held on a bit longer. A white school official told black objectors that Sambo was “cute"; when the official read Sambo stories to her own children, she added, “they had been very sorry for Little Black Sambo.”

The argument being used to defend Harry Potter is essentially the same as one that was used to defend Little Black Sambo in the 1960s.

Even after school districts barred Sambo, he lived on in the classroom. As late as 1964, for example, white teachers in Lincoln, Neb., refused to comply with a citywide order to remove Little Black Sambo readers from curricula and libraries. “Other communities have withdrawn Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Orwell, Hemingway, Hardy, and Dickens for reasons similar to those given for the withdrawal of Little Black Sambo,” one teacher explained. “To accept the principle that any book which arouses emotional feelings should be withdrawn is to preclude free thought and free discussion.”

Almost to a word, this is the same argument mouthed by today’s defenders of Harry Potter. It is also absurd. Except perhaps as an artifact of American slavery and racism, Sambo has no place in the public schools.

Why, then, does Harry Potter belong there? The question moves us beyond the stale boundaries of the censorship issue, with all of its false charges and phony moralism. I would venture two very brief answers:

By reducing evangelicals to witch-hunting caricatures, we miss important distinctions among them.

1. Because many—possibly most—"evangelical Christians” actually like Harry Potter. By reducing evangelicals to witch-hunting caricatures, we miss important distinctions between them. From Charles Colson of Watergate fame to Wheaton College literature professor Alan Jacobs, many self-described evangelicals argue that Harry Potter promotes Christian faith. Some of them have even compared the books favorably to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, a longtime evangelical favorite. When critics claim that Harry Potter insults evangelical Christians, then, they are simply wrong. It insults some evangelicals, not all of them.

2. Unlike Little Black Sambo, the Harry Potter books do not single out a specific group for vilification. Although a Harry Potter novel might offend devout Christians, they cannot seriously claim that it targets them. Nowhere are characters identified as Christian, for example. Nor is the subject of religion discussed anywhere in the texts. I can understand why a Christian might deplore these absences. But it defies reason to argue that the absences themselves reflect a slur against “Christianity,” especially when so many devout Christians approve of the books.

Questions about a book’s suitability can only be answered through open discussion.

Admittedly, these answers raise their own difficult questions. If most evangelicals—or even most Americans—opposed Harry Potter, would we be justified in removing the books from schools? And who should determine whether a group has been slurred—the group in question, or all of us?

My own faith, the democratic faith, tells me that we can only solve these problems through open discussion. That won’t happen if we keep bleating on about “censorship,” which works to quell the very deliberation that we need. So if you’re opposed to Harry Potter, I hope you’ll register your protests at our local bookstore when the next volume is published. You’ll find my daughter and me on line, waiting to buy it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Harry Potter and His Censors


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