Restricted Access: an American History of Book Banning

Wed. Sep 21, 2022 6:00pm - 7:30pm EDT
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Event Description

MSNBC's Ali Velshi explores today's unprecedented wave of book bannings in the context of America’s history of censorship. With a special reading by actor André De Shields.


  • André De Shields, reading Toni Morrison

  • Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the banned book Speak

  • Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Read Until You Understand

  • Whitney Strub, Associate Professor, American Studies, Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University

  • Amy Werbel, author of Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock

  • moderated by Ali Velshi, host of MSNBC’s Velshi

Censorship and book bans are nothing new in American life. In the 19th century, it was the federal Comstock laws barring the delivery and distribution of “every obscene, lewd, or lascivious” book. Today books that highlight race, gender, or sexuality are being yanked from public shelves around the country. According to the American Library Association, the number of banned and challenged books doubled from 2020 to 2021, reaching the highest number they’ve ever counted.

A panel of authors, scholars, and critics speak with MSNBC’s Ali Velshi to reflect on the current climate around book bans, and to situate our moment within the history of censorship in the United States. Actor André De Shields, one of the stars of the upcoming revival of Death of a Salesman, will open the evening reading a passage from Toni Morrison.

Presented in partnership with PEN America.

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Livestream | Captions and a transcript will be provided. Media used over the course of the conversation will be accompanied by alt text and/or audio description. You can request a free ASL (American Sign Language) interpretation by emailing your request at least two weeks in advance of the event: email or use this Gmail template.


Ali Velshi headshotAli Velshi is the host of Velshi on MSNBC. He is also a Business Correspondent for NBC News, a columnist for MSNBC, and a weekly economics contributor to NPR’s Here And Now. Prior to joining MSNBC/NBC News in 2016, he hosted Ali Velshi On Target, a nightly prime-time show on Al Jazeera America. Previously, Velshi was CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent, anchor of CNN International’s World Business Today and the host of CNN’s weekly business show Your Money. He also co-hosted CNN’s morning show, American Morning. Velshi is the author of Gimme My Money Back and co-author (with CNN’s Christine Romans) of How to Speak Money, as well as the upcoming A Field Guide To Democracy (2023), and Open Space, with David Ariosto (2024).

André De Shields headshotA show stopper at age 76, André De Shields was the triple-crown winner of the 2019 award season, garnering Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk and Grammy Awards for his universally praised role as Hermes, Messenger to the Gods, in Hadestown. In an unparalleled career spanning more than half a century, De Shields has distinguished himself as an actor, director, educator and philanthropist. His defining theatrical performances include roles in the original Broadway productions of The Full Monty (Tony Award nomination), Play On! (Tony Award nomination), Ain't Misbehavin' (Emmy Award), and the titular role in The Wiz. Ubuntu!

Laurie Halse Anderson headshotLaurie Halse Anderson is a New York Times bestselling author known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Two more books, The Impossible Knife of Memory and Shout were long-listed for the National Book Award. Laurie has been nominated for Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award seven times; this is her greatest honor. The American Library Association gave Laurie the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her significant contribution to young adult literature. She has been honored for her battles for intellectual freedom by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the National Council of Teachers of English. She is a member of RAINN's National Leadership Council and frequently speaks about sexual violence.

Farah Jasmine Griffin headshotFarah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University, where she also served as the inaugural Chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies. Professor Griffin received her BA in History & Literature from Harvard and her PhD in American Studies from Yale. She is the author or editor of eight books, including Who Set You Flowin?: The African American Migration Narrative, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, and Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II. Her most recent book, Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, was a PBS NewsHour Best Book of the Year.

Whitney Strub headshotWhitney Strub received his doctorate in U.S. history from UCLA and taught at the University of Miami, California State University-Fullerton, UCLA, and Temple University before joining the Federated Department at Rutgers, where he is associate professor. His first book, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, was published in 2011 by Columbia University Press. His second book, Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression, charts the history of obscenity doctrine in patrolling the boundaries of sexual citizenship from the colonial era through the 21st century, but especially through the still-binding 1957 Supreme Court case Roth v. U.S., which established that obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment. Most recently, he co-edited Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s with Carolyn Bronstein.

Amy Werbel headshotAmy Werbel joined the History of Art department at Fashion Institute of Technology in 2013 as a specialist in art of the United States. She is the author of numerous works on the subject of American visual culture and sexuality, including Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock, winner of the 2019 Peter C. Rollins Book Prize of the Northeast Popular and American Culture Association. Werbel's previous publications include Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Dr. Werbel is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from numerous institutions, including the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, Frick Center for the History of Collecting, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. She served as a Fulbright Scholar in the United Kingdom (2019–2020), and in China (2011–2012).


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Stephen A. Schwarzman Building 476 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10018