Banned Books Week Celebrates 'Freedom To Read'

Sep 18, 2019

On today's program: A blues guitarist-turned-philosopher explains his unorthodox education; five prisoners write a book about life behind bars; how piano-making took root in Pittsburgh; and what to look for from Banned Books Week in Pittsburgh.

Credit Courtesy of Ernie Hawkins

Delta blues, with a side of existentialism
(0:00 — 12:00) 

Pittsburgh native Ernie Hawkins is an internationally acclaimed blues guitarist with doctoral degree in phenomenological psychology. If that pairing seems curious, it's just as much of a mystery to Hawkins himself. 

"I've never been able to figure it out," he says. A poor student, Hawkins says he barely made it out of high school, but it was then that he discovered his passion for guitar. "When I picked up a guitar, I saw the whole world."

The day after graduation, he left for New York City to study blues guitar with the well-known musician Reverend Gary Davis. But, he says, he always knew he wanted an education, so he returned to Pittsburgh and enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. Through his studies, he felt the same spark for  philosophy as he once did for music. 

He went on to the University of Dallas to work on a Ph.D. in phenomenological psychology. While he was there, he met other blues musicians who taught him how to play Texas-style blues. 

WESA's Bob Studebaker talks with Hawkins about his style and approach to the East Coast and Texas blues, as well as his unlikely trajectory into the academic world. 

Prisoners' new book sheds light on life without parole
(13:15 — 17:45) 

Ralph "Malakki" Bolden was convicted of first-degree murder after killing a man during a robbery in 1994. He's one of more than 5,000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of release in Pennsylvania

In prison, Bolden started writing. He and five other men, most of whom are also sentenced to life, have chronicled their experiences in a new book, called "Life Sentences." He says he hopes the book will remind the public that people who are in prison don't just cease to exist.

"When we incarcerate someone, we send them away," Bolden says. "So I hope our book lets people know that although we have made some bad choices in our lives, that we are still human beings."

WESA's An-Li Herring spoke with Bolden by phone about his ongoing prison sentence and what compelled him to tell his story.

Pittsburgh's 'deep bench' of piano talent
(18:05 — 22:18) 

While there was never a significant piano manufacturing presence in Pittsburgh, the city has cultivated the talent of many great piano players over the years. From Ahmad Jamal to Mary Lou Williams, Katie Blackley explores the city's homegrown piano talent as part of WESA's  Good Question! series.

Banned Books Week events take place Sept. 22-28
(22:18 — 39:04) 

Books have been banned in the U.S. for decades, but children's and young adult literature are most often the targets.

Kitty Shropshire, a Ph.D. student in English literary and cultural studies program at Carnegie Mellon University, teaches a course on banned books. She says children's literature—like Harry Potter or many Judy Blume novels—usually draw ire because of individual parents.

"People are concerned about what is appropriate for children," she says, noting themes of sexuality or adult behavior, like drinking alcohol. And their concern isn't misguided, she says, but banning books isn't the solution.

Brenda Lee Green, president of Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU, agrees. She says parents should talk to their children about these issues. "Parents don't have the right to remove these books from other people's children," she says.

Christy Bostardi is a member of Book Fairies of Pennsylvania, which hides books around the city for strangers to find and read. She says banning books also has educational implications. 

"We read books for personal reasons... to explore the outside world and learn." Removing books from shelves, she says, prohibits us from being an informed society, but it can have an inverse effect, especially for children, who get excited by the idea of reading a banned book.

The ACLU is also partnering with CMU and the Carnegie Library system to celebrate the "freedom to read" at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland on Tuesday. 

90.5 WESA's Avery Keatley, Julia Zenkevich and Helen Wigger contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.