The topic of censorship took center stage last Wednesday at the Mandel Public Library when actors from Palm Beach Dramaworks performed a show titled My Books, Banned and Burned. The three Dramaworks players portrayed authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller and others whose writings were targeted as threats to the Nazi Germany society and ordered to be burned. Anyone who has ever studied this period of history will recall the famous pictures of German university students tossing banned books into bonfires; the singed prose rising from off the pages in a self righteous stench toward the heavens. The damned authors of the Nazi persecution were given a voice through Nanique Gheridian, Dan Leonard and Richie Lester’s reading of writer Mark Lynch’s script, and we in the audience were moved by the conviction and fierce determination to defend free speech denoted in the actors’ delivery.
The three-person drama explored not only how fascism can present a danger to free speech, but also fundamentalism. Half-way through the performance, the setting switches to the Southern United States where a Christian church has also planned a public book burning. It seems that the pastor of this church believes that he has the authority to burn J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books based on scriptures found in the Bible, specifically in Acts 19:19: “Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
During this segment of the performance, I began to retrospectively contemplate my experience growing up in the Pentecostal faith. We were discouraged to read anything outside of the King James Version of the Bible. Many activities were banned in our church like listening to secular music, going to movie theaters, watching certain cartoons, and reading books that conflicted with the church dogma. Later in life, as an adult, I wrestled with the faith of my youth, going back and forth, trying to decide what a sin was and what was not. At one point, I threw away books and vinyl records that I believed were sinful. Then years later, I renounced my faith and threw away my bible, only to years later after that, reverse my actions once again, and virtually read the Bible from cover to cover. But one thing remained true, as the actors in this performance underscored, you can destroy books but you cannot kill ideas. I found that to be very profound.
The German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine summed it up best by saying, “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.” As an American living in the 21st century, it frightens me to think of living back in a time when books and people were burned because of conflicts in ideology, racism, extreme nationalism and fundamentalist religion. Yet, it is still happening in our lifetime. In Mali, extremism at the hands of Al-Qaeda has banned the beautiful musical and cultural traditions that were once world renown. In fact, they have even destroyed historic ancient shrines in Timbuktu. If we are to protect free speech, then we must speak up whenever injustice poses a threat to our ability to express ourselves with words. My Books, Banned and Burned does just that, with a bit of pizzazz for a subject that too often is regrettably ignored.