Elizabeth Acevedo's The Poet X is an award-winning coming-of-age novel about an Afro-Latina teen who works through her experiences and grievances with race, sexuality, and her family’s Catholic faith through poetry. It’s a New York Times best-seller, and it has been one of the most in-demand novels for young people since it was published in 2018. It’s also a book that’s been banned in several public schools.
Across the country, school boards are removing—or fighting to pull—books by non-white authors that tackle racial inequality and sexuality, themes that are critical to identity formation, from their curriculums and school libraries. Opponents argue that texts that discuss racial inequality or violence in the U.S. beget discrimination against those who have historically perpetuated this harm, namely white people, and that titles that deal with sexuality or sexual violence are inappropriate for young readers. As a result, the histories, knowledge, and aesthetics of Latinxs, Black Americans, Asian Americans, and Indigenous communities are being criminalized by U.S. education policy—and young people are worse off because of it.
In October, after Virginia's New Kent school district applauded itself for their Latinx Heritage Month celebrations, they pulled The Poet X from its library shelves. The decision came after a parent, who complained about the book on Facebook and gathered support from others, shared her issues with the novel at a school board meeting. Her complaint: the alleged sexualization of a teen girl in the book—specifically, Xiomara, the 15-year-old protagonist, discovering that her identity in a patriarchal society is sexualized and that she, as a young Black Latina, is often stereotyped as a sultry siren. Similarly, in York, Pennsylvania, Acevedo’s most recent novel, Clap When You Land, was temporarily banned for explicit content. In this novel, protagonist, Yahaira, is sexually assaulted on a crowded New York subway, and her sister, Camino, is harassed by a local pimp in Dominican Republic. In both of these books, Acevedo sheds light on the normalization of sexual violence against young women and girls and urges readers not to justify these behaviors under the gendered guise of “boys will be boys.” In banning these books, even for a limited time, school boards ban teen girls from learning what sexual harm looks like and that it's wrong, further upholding the culture in which gender violence thrives.
Like The Poet X and Clap When You Land, novels by Angie Thomas, Erika Sánchez, Mariama J. Lockington, and Jewell Parker Rhodes are among those banned or under threat in schools throughout the country. Thomas’ The Hate U Give and On The Come Up have been banned in some classrooms in Texas and Pennsylvania, respectively, for promoting an anti-police message and its use of profanity. In The Hate U Give, a young Black woman finds her voice after her best friend, a young Black man, is murdered by the police. The protagonist channels her emotions through advocacy and protest. In On The Come Up, a young Black woman finds her creative outlet through rap. As the daughter of a deceased underground rap legend, the protagonist turns to hip-hop to support her family amid mounting bills and the prospect of homelessness. As police killings of Black boys and men become more visible, with young people witnessing this state violence in their communities, on the news, or through social media, and grieving families attempt to stay afloat amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Thomas’ novels offer a healthy way for them to process their pain. Banning books that deal with police violence, anti-blackness, and sexism, allegedly to avoid teaching hate in schools, reinforces institutionalized harm against youth of color.
In addition to young adult novels, schools have also targeted instructional titles that help educators teach about race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and other social issues. In November 2020, Pennsylvania's Central York school board flagged books recommended by teachers for an anti-racist curriculum as too divisive, demonstrating how attempts to diversify K-12 reading materials are often viewed by administrators as anti-American or anti-patriotic. Among the instructional materials banned were Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera’s En Comunidad, a book that helps educators improve the way they teach and learn with multilingual students; How to Be An Anti-Racist, a text by historian Ibram X. Kendi that discusses racism and offers proposals for anti-racism and systemic changes; and Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools by Christine E. Sleeter and Miguel Zavala, which emphasizes the colonial history and legacy of U.S. schools. While the ban on these books have been lifted, they continue to face threats in other parts of the country. Without these materials, the methodology and pedagogy for educators who teach these texts are being censored.
But book bans are just one of a string of school board actions that have occurred this year—a time when educators have added lessons on U.S. racial history to school curriculum in the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests—that obstruct what or how students learn about injustice in the country, past and present. Some local governments have taken aim at critical race theory (CRT), a legal theory that considers how race and racism have impacted social structures. Emboldened by former President Donald Trump’s war against CRT, the Alabama State School Board voted to permanently ban CRT in a 7-2 vote in October. According to Governor Kay Ivey, who once donned blackface, the theory teaches children to hate white people. In Texas, the state hasn’t just taken aim at the ways instructors teach U.S. racial history; it’s also targeted how they talk about current events. Since September 1, teachers can only discuss current events by giving "deference to both sides,” which educators say limits conversations about race and racism in the country and makes young people less educated. Similar policies have been discussed in Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, with efforts to ban books at different stages in states across the country. Interestingly, many are battleground states whose conservative leaders would directly benefit from disempowering communities of color by erasing their histories.
Not unlike the students of the 1960s ethnic studies movement and the 2010 Mexican-American studies fight, educators and students of color understand that this erasure hurts rather than serves them, and they’re fighting for representation in their curriculum. In September, students and teachers of the Central York Banned Book Club protested the freeze on books and educational resources by or about people of color—and they won. The Central York School District reversed its nearly yearlong decision to ban the titles. Like the students in York, a growing number of young people are speaking out about the kinds of books, histories, and lessons they want in their schools. To them, editing out ethnic studies pedagogies and authors of color teaches them that they don’t belong in U.S. schools, and that learning about their stories is anti-American. For educators invested in social justice and racial equality, policies that treat instructional materials as contraband also endanger their careers.
In 2021, we find ourselves back in the days of banned books. The difference: formerly banned titles by white men, like John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, aimed to censor conversations. This time, in addition to obstructing critical discussions and silencing voices, the bans criminalize authors of color for their own lived or inherited experiences. While opponents justify their attack on the histories, knowledges, and narratives of non-white people with the assertion that education should be raceless and separate from political advocacy, it only leaves racism unacknowledged and unchecked. In doing so, it upholds white supremacy and patriarchy, and it robs young people of a comprehensive and dignifying education.