Speaking out against censorship

Liam Ahern '22 reads from James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain during Banned Book Night. 

Adam Loyd
September 27, 2019
Liam Ahern '22 reads during Banned Book Night

Among the neatly arranged tables and shelves at Water Street Bookstore, community members from the town of Exeter gathered to take a stand against censorship. 

In conjunction with nationally celebrated Banned Books Week, locals — including authors, educators and policymakers — read passages from texts, which, for a variety of reasons, were at one time banned from schools, libraries or retailers somewhere in the United States. 

Representing Phillips Exeter Academy, Liam Ahern ’22 confidently stepped up to the microphone to read from James Baldwin’s classic, Go Tell It on the Mountain. To a crowd of dozens, Ahern recited the text describing a Sunday morning scene in the author’s native Harlem. The 1953 semi-autobiographical novel was banned by school districts in New York and Virginia for vulgar language and depictions of sex.  

“I saw Baldwin’s name on the list of authors who wrote banned books and I thought it would be a really great opportunity to look into one of my favorite political activists and historical figures,” he said. 

Ahern believes his selection was targeted not for its descriptions of debauchery, but for other factors including the author’s race, how the novel depicts religion and themes of sexuality. 

“An influential black author criticizing the church with hints that the main character may be queer; there’s so many reasons why a lot of people would be scared of this book,” he said. 

Stephanie Bramlett, Exeter's director of equity and inclusion, also was among those who read passages.   

Ahern said he was inspired to take part in the event by his adviser, English Instructor Courtney Marshall.

“Dr. Marshall read at this event two years ago and she asked me to be a part of it this year,” Ahern said. “She’s never led me wrong, so I said ‘of course, I’d love to!’”

At the heart of the night’s festivities was an acknowledgement and appreciation of the right to free speech and, according to organizers, “the harms of censorship.”

“The fight to keep the First Amendment interpreted in a way that is just is a constant one,” Ahern said. “It’s a fight that we can continue with events like this.”

Dan Chartrand, who founded Water Street Bookstore in 1991, echoed Ahern’s sentiments when talking about why he’s hosted this event for the past eight years. 

“When we do community events like this that emphasize reading and the access to reading, we’re right on mission,” he said.