The Daily Heller: The Black Bars of Censorship

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Censorship. Blocked-out words. Blacked-out sentences, paragraphs and entire pages. The act of censorship, while frowned upon by the First Amendment, has nonetheless been upheld by school boards, legislatures and courts—the very institutions that are empowered to uphold freedom of speech. Censorship is endemic in the United States.

I’m not going to end censorship in this space or during my lifetime. But I will briefly mention a telltale sign; one of the ubiquitous graphic tools of every censor: black bars.

Black bars are the censor’s brand mark. Black bars are unambiguous. Black bars block out banned parts of books, articles, photos, films, paintings any thing visual and textual. The rationales vary. But once the graphic curtain is pulled—cancelled—there is no telling what its covered up.

In 1926, author and poet Kendall Banning (an apt name, indeed) dedicated a self-published book of Censored Mother Goose Rhymes to “The Censors [of America] who have taught us how to read naughty meanings into harmless words.”

That’s worth repeating. The censors have “taught us how to read naughty meanings into harmless words.” It is not as far fetched as it sounds, either.

The author of over a dozen books, and an editor of mainstream periodicals like Cosmopolitan, Popular Radio and Hearst Magazine, Banning was livid over a 1929 congressional debate on revising tariff legislation that allowed United States Customs inspectors to ban and seize imported books they deemed “obscene.” So, Banning reprinted this 1926 volume under his Mother Goose imprint (at 100 Fifth Ave, NYC, the same building where PRINT was once headquartered in the 1990s). As illustrated below, the traditional nursery rhymes have words blacked out to suggest a hidden obscenity. Of course this made an innocent word or phrasse even more prurient. Banning distributed copies free of charge to members of the U.S. Congress. Gertrude Stein owned a copy of the 1929 edition.

Its fairly easy to decipher Banning’s banned words (or just ask Mother Goose, some of her actual rhymes are here).

(Note to New York Times: A new puzzle, “Uncensored”. Where the players have 30 seconds to restore a banned word or phrase. The inaugural puzzle can be the U.S. Bill of Rights.)

Courtesy Mirko Ilic Collection