There is a disturbing trend in the US today. It has suddenly become fashionable to petition town councils and school boards to ban books from library shelves and classrooms. Even though petitions to ban books are not a new phenomenon, reasons for this sudden surge in this activity should give us all pause.
Michael Arceneaux, who is Black and queer, laments in thisweek.com that the latest trend in book banning targets stories by and about people of color and other marginalized communities. Such stories often explore in candid terms topics of concern to young people (most of the authors are also young) that until recently have been considered taboo. He cites acclaimed author Toni Morrison—a current target of contemporary bans—as calling the practice the “purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter outline this growing phenomenon: “In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust because of nudity and curse words. [imagine the absurdity—a story about the Holocaust where six million Jews were murdered banned because of curse words. ED]
“Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books…Such challenges have long been a staple of school board meetings, but it isn’t just their frequency that has changed, according to educators, librarians and free-speech advocates — it is also the tactics behind them and the venues where they play out. Conservative groups in particular, fueled by social media, are now pushing the challenges into statehouses, law enforcement and political races.”
So called “Critical Race Theory” has attracted the most fire. How does a ban on Critical Race Theory impact the way teachers can talk about, for instance, the seemingly coordinated bomb threats at more than a dozen HBCU’s on the first day of Black History Month in 2022? It seems unlikely that these threats were totally coincidental (recent revelations by the January 6 Committee about coordination behind efforts to overturn the 2020 Presidential election may provide a lesson). Why do we have Black History Month in the first place? Why HBCU’s. Were these bomb threats coordinated? By whom? To what end? Under a CRT ban, can we not talk about these events because they might make some white students feel uncomfortable?
Back in the 1980’s, I toured several Black colleges and universities supported by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (churches were in the vanguard of promoting HBCU’s in this country) for a film I was producing. The film’s title, A Sense of Belonging, speaks to the void that white institutions were often unable to fill for students of color, who were always vastly outnumbered. Would teaching about this concept under CRT-inspired legislation, risk educators running afoul of the law? If teachers are unsure, would they avoid the topic altogether?
And while the greatest proponents of a myopic view of history are among conservatives, this trend is not limited to right wing zealots. Some classics have also been attacked by those on the left. Some school boards have voted to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” — voted the best book of the past 125 years in a survey of readers conducted by The New York Times Book Review. Their objections included arguments that the novel marginalized characters of color, celebrated “white saviorhood” and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature.
Political leaders on the right have seized on the controversies over books. The newly elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, rallied his supporters by framing book bans as an issue of parental control. In Texas, hundreds of books have been challenged by parents including books about Wilma Rudolph and Michelle Obama and such renowned authors as Toni Morrison, Ibram X. Kendi and Khaled Housseini for causes as trivial as making white people uncomfortable.
The core purpose of education is to expose students to new and nuanced ideas. The answer is not to ban such writing, but to do the hard work to set these ideas into their historical context.
If students in this country—especially among our youth—are not exposed to challenging ideas, we become increasingly ill-equipped to deal with the unprecedented but inevitable challenges ahead. Limiting exposure to new ideas out of fear or petty partisanship stunts our collective imagination, leaving us at the mercy of an increasingly unpredictable future.