Books, plays and teachable moments
The tempest that continues to swirl around a window display of banned books in an Ashland shop window provides an opportunity to discuss weighty issues: censorship, racial stereotyping and boycotts, to name a few. The banning of books, when it has happened, is censorship. The unsuccessful attempt by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to get some books removed from the window was not, but the festival's retaliation by refusing to do business with the store was a boycott, despite protestations to the contrary.
The confrontation arose because Shakespeare Books & Antiques, on East Main Street in Ashland, displays in its front window a collection of books that have been banned for one reason or another. Among them are "Little Black Sambo," a children's book; "Uncle Tom's Cabin"; "Huckleberry Finn" — all banned over concerns about racism — as well as "The Wizard of Oz," "The Bell Jar," "Charlotte's Web" and "The Color Purple."
"Sambo," written by a Scottish author living in India as a gift to her daughters, tells the story of a boy who avoids being eaten by tigers by offering them his colorful clothes. When the tigers fight among themselves about who is the best dressed, they chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of melted butter. Sambo recovers his clothes and takes the butter to his mother, who makes tasty pancakes out of it.
Tigers are found in India, not in Africa, but Sambo is portrayed in early editions of the book as a a stereotypical African boy.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors involved in the festival's production of "The Wiz" were disturbed that "Little Black Sambo" was displayed next to "The Wizard of Oz," and shop owner Judi Honoré moved the books apart after discussing the matter with them. Later, after some OSF emails about the issue surfaced, she restored the display.
In a letter to Honoré, OSF Executive Director Cynthia Rider said the store owner had caused "continued pain" to OSF actors and to the festival and that OSF would no longer make official purchases from the store.
Later, in a letter to the Ashland Daily Tidings, Rider and Artistic Director Bill Rauch said the festival's decision not to patronize the store was "not a boycott" and "not censorship."
They're right about censorship. As a private organization, the festival has no power to force a private bookstore to remove a book from its window. That takes governmental authority.
Refusing to do business with the store is, however, a boycott, by definition. It's also an overreaction.
Displaying images that were once accepted but now are considered offensive may cause some discomfort, but it can also serve as the starting point for a discussion about the value of free expression. OSF officials of all people should understand the impact of works of literature and artistic expression that may offend the sensibilities of some viewers. In addition to promoting diversity through colorblind casting and other techniques, for which it deserves praise, OSF is known for presenting cutting-edge works that challenge and offend some patrons.
No one expects the festival to tone down its approach, nor would most support attempts to force it to do so. Challenging plays should be performed. And books that challenge our sensitivities should be used as teaching tools, not hidden from sight.