Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that books teaching critical race theory or LGBT themes should not be removed from school libraries. You can find a counterpoint here, where Tony Kinnett argues that they should be removed.
When word of schools banning books like “How to Be an Antiracist” and or initiatives like The 1619 Project entered the news cycle, I assumed this movement was so obviously anti-American that this phase would pass quickly. However, the stubborn smog refuses to blow over.
The growing book banning craze sweeping America is poisoning our country and choking our foundational beliefs. I thought I could quietly mind my business and let the book bans subside. I’ve since realized that silence is not an option.
The recent book bans are especially dangerous because lawmakers and “activist” groups are seeking to ban books that they feel are contradictory to their worldview. The attack on books, primarily those offering non-White, non-straight perspectives, is an affront to free speech and free expression, two principles that conservative America has confusingly claimed as their own.
The right to free speech and expression isn’t only for white, heterosexual, cisgender narratives. We have to be wary when those in positions censor those perspectives that make them feel uncomfortable.
As Americans, we must remember that the freedom to read and discuss is a crucial component of a functioning democracy and a healthy society. We can’t sit on the sidelines while our democratic foundation erodes more and more with each book removed from school libraries.
PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to protect freedom of expression in the US, released its “Banned in the USA” report. The organization found that 1,586 bans had been implemented across 86 school districts in 26 different states. In fact, a new report from the American Library Association found 729 challenges to library materials, the highest number in the 20 years since the organization has tracked the issue.
Yet it is the nature of the books being banned that is both alarming and revealing. That same report revealed that 41% of the books included either primary or prominent secondary characters of color. Twenty-two percent explicitly addressed issues of race and racism, while 33% addressed LGBTQIA+ themes.
The groups that are pushing for censorship in libraries, including Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, pose as “grassroots organizations” in a bid to posture as real voices of concerned parents. Unsurprisingly, these “grassroots” organizations are in fact linked to deep-pocketed right-wing donors and lobby groups.
These groups are simply the voice of a noisy and well-resourced minority. Recent polls show that the vast majority of Americans oppose the idea of banning books, even after being presented with arguments for and against removing potentially controversial books from libraries.
This movement reeks of hypocrisy. The far-right, who decries the slow creep of “cancel culture” seems perfectly happy to ban books that make them feel slightly uncomfortable.
Parent-led groups like Moms for Liberty argue that they have parental rights to determine what their children can and can’t read. George Johnson is the author of the best-selling “All Boys aren’t Blue,” a memoir of growing up black and queer, a book coincidentally banned in 20 states. He asks “How can you deny the right to another parent who says that my child does need this book?” He succinctly reveals the self-defeating nature of the book banning argument.
With books on the banned lists predominantly from authors of color or from the LGTBQIA+ community, we rob youth of the opportunity to feel represented, heard and seen. If we only give voice to the white experience in our school’s libraries, we don’t just rob our children of different perspectives, we disenfranchise them of the education they need to succeed in a global society.
Indeed, having the long arm of government reach into our libraries and pluck “disagreeable” books off the shelves is a textbook example of governmental overreach.
Widespread book banning sets a dangerous precedent, and historic cases of similar actions had foreboding consequences. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition, books were targeted first. People came next.
The grounds upon which these books are being banned are equally spurious. For example, Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye,” the important story of a young black girl’s experiences in 1940’s America, has been put on the red list for reasons spanning from “sexually explicit material” to “lots of disturbing language.” The Greek and Roman myths that most children are brought up with included equally disturbing depictions of violence and suffering.
These sorts of arguments deny our children access to great literature. Of course, if you isolate one or two paragraphs, you will find mature themes. However, if you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you find a masterpiece.
Ironically, one of the books being denied to some students is “Dear Martin,” an award-winning young adult novel by Nic Stone. The main character addresses his diary entries to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he seeks to emulate MLK in his response to injustice and discrimination.
Lawmakers and “activist” groups who love to quote King to justify their actions would better serve their communities and country by listening to his final speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In response to governmental overreach, King states, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there.”
We must heed Martin Luther King’s call; our civil society depends on it.
Nicole Tucker-Smith is an author, speaker, founder, and CEO of Lessoncast and a team member of Race to Better Health.