Truth Is Trouble: Toni Morrison’s Advocacy Against Censorship

By Leah Drayton, Communications
September 14, 2022

NYPL

In observation of Banned Books Week 2022, The New York Public Library is dedicating a spotlight to one of American literature’s most renowned authors and powerful advocates against censorship: Toni Morrison.

Both celebrated and censored, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Through all her renown, Morrison’s books are a regular fixture on the American Library Association (ALA)’s Frequently Challenged Books list, with her novels Beloved and The Bluest Eye consistently challenged in schools and libraries. Morrison’s novels, which explore the Black experience from slavery and Reconstruction to the Great Depression to the Korean War, have been challenged for their unflinching exposition of racism, violence, and sexism.

Celebrating Morrison’s legacy for Banned Books Week is more than just acknowledging the rich storytelling she gifted us through these narratives of the Black experience. Toni Morrison was an ebullient warrior against censorship, outwardly and powerfully advocating for libraries and open access to literature for decades.

“Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations. Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission. No committee decides who may enter, no crisis of body or spirit must accompany the entrant. No tuition is charged, no oath sworn, no visa demanded,” said Morrison. “Of the monuments humans build for themselves, very few say 'touch me, use me, my hush is not indifference, my space is not a barrier.' If I inspire awe, it is because I am in awe of you and the possibilities that dwell in you.”

While spending five decades teaching, editing, supporting emerging writers, and publishing plays, novels, children’s books, essays, and even a libretto, Morrison was named a Library Lion in 1982, joined NYPL's board in 1985, and was named a Life Trustee of the Library in 2006.

As Morrison wrote “fear of unmonitored writing is justified—because truth is trouble” (Burn This Book, 2009). Join NYPL to take a stand against censorship by exploring Morrison’s advocacy for open access to reading.

As part of NYPL’s Banned Books Week celebration, The New York Public Library is honoring Morrison through giveaways, public programming, and book talks for Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and other commonly banned books for all ages. See more here.

Morrison's words are engraved on a wall at NYPL's 42nd Street flagship location, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building.

Toni Morrison on Banned Books

The Letters in the Bathroom

This year, the ALA reports a record number of challenges to remove books from the shelves of schools and libraries. (The Bluest Eye is on 2021’s list.)

“I’m probably a little silly, perhaps, about the banning of my books,” said Morrison in a 2009 interview with NPR. “I tend not to pay an awful lot of attention to it, most of the instances I know about fall into the category of the absurd.”

Morrison’s awareness of the absurdity included the censorship and celebration of her voice. Listen to this NYPL talk with Angela Davis where she describes the two letters hanging in her bathroom—an invitation to accept her Nobel Peace Prize and a letter informing her that Paradise has been banned due to its potential to incite the “breakdown of prisons.”

Read More of Toni Morrison's Works at NYPL

Novels

A Selection of Children’s Books (written with her late son Slade Morrison)

Poetry

Music

Morrison revisits the tragedy of Margeret Garner through opera. The libretto is a loose retelling of the tale that inspired Beloved.  

Learn more about how the Library is observing Banned Books Week 2022, including our Banned Books Reading List, free programs and events discussing Banned Books and Toni Morrison’s work, book giveaways, and more.