Unbothered continues its look at the tangled history of Black culture and identity with ROOTS (Un)Banned, a series of stories on book banning for Black History Month. In 2023, we’re exploring efforts to censor Black stories across the country, the roots of what’s happening, those who are being affected, and those who are on the ground fighting to stop it.
In what many have identified as a knee-jerk reaction to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election and the wave of social discourse it inevitably spawned, the far right has spent the last few years rabidly attacking any and everything progressive, claiming that all discussions of race, gender, sexuality, and even class are hurtful at best, and harmful (or to them, “reverse racist”) at worst. Classrooms and school libraries aren’t immune to the conservative movement’s agenda, either; from children’s books to memoirs to literary classics, books that are even remotely “woke” are being challenged and subsequently banned from being dispersed in schools across the country.
Activist, sociologist, and author W.E.B. Du Bois once said, “Education and work are the levers to uplift a people,” and he was right. The more we read, the more we know — and the more we can use that knowledge to critique and even revolutionize our world. That’s precisely why, more than ever, we’re seeing such a vicious pushback against books of every genre that were written to expose the evils of white supremacy and give us the tools to create a new, more equitable society.
But we can’t let them take our books.
This Black History Month, we’re reclaiming our time and our literature, starting with some essential reading that conservatives on the far right want to keep from us. Here are 13 banned books that you should be reading this month.
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The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison (1970)
Scan any banned books list, and you’ll probably find a number of Toni Morrison novels named throughout. Why? Because the late novelist was known for writing unflinchingly honest narratives about the Black American experience, particularly through the vantage point of Black women. The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s 1970 writing debut, is among the most famous of her banned books, and it chronicles the debilitating mental health of a young Black girl who is emotionally and sexually abused. Many parents objected to its depiction of child sexual abuse as well as its discussion of colorism and anti-Blackness, and the novel was subsequently banned from classrooms.
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All Boys Aren’t Blue - George M. Johnson (2020)
In All Boys Aren’t Blue, his most personal project yet, author George M. Johnson looks back at the formative years of his life in New Jersey and Virginia, bravely uncovering some of the deep trauma that he was subjected to as a queer Black boy growing up in a blatantly homophobic and racist culture. The book was written as a memoir of his personal experience, but also as a means of providing encouragement to other young Black men who may be confronting the same issues. Though many were moved by Johnson’s memoir, his candid discussion of sexually explicit encounters led to it being banned from almost 30 different school districts across the United States.
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The 1619 Project - Nikole Hannah-Jones (2021)
Originally published in The New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project is a series of poems and long-form essays exploring the untold history and sociopolitical consequences of the genesis of American slavery. Right-wing lawmakers and parents alike took so much offense to Hannah-Jones’ critical take on this country’s continued whitewashing of the darker parts of its history that they rallied for it to be banned from classrooms across the country. Thankfully, not even the conservative backlash against Hannah-Jones’ book could stop the discourse; The 1619 Project was eventually turned into a six-part Hulu docuseries. (New episodes released every Thursday!)
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Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women a Movement Forgot - Mikki Kendall (2020)
What’s the difference between mainstream feminism and hood feminism? According to Mikki Kendall, the latter speaks to frequently marginalized populations — including Black women and poor people — that are typically ignored by and excluded from the pussyhat-wearing, girlboss movement. In Hood Feminism, Kendall gets real about the roots of societal issues like hunger, education disparity, and gun violence, pointing out the ways in which a nuanced, community-specific approach to feminism is the key to solving them effectively. Of course, people weren’t feeling that; caught in conservatives’ reactionary rally against all things critical race theory, Hood Feminism has regularly topped national banned books lists.
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Cinderella is Dead - Kalynn Bayron (2020)
Even fantasy books aren’t safe from the far right’s censorship efforts. Kalynn Bayron’s fantasy YA novel Cinderella is Dead turns the classic fairytale on its head by centering the journey of a young Black girl and her struggle against a heteronormative society that she doesn’t quite fit into. The book received critical acclaim, but it also got caught up in Texas’ House Bill 3979, legislation that bans any discussion of race or sex in an education space where an individual feels uncomfortable. Cinderella is Dead was named on a Texas legislator’s watch list of books that could potentially violate the controversial bill.
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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou (1969)
Maya Angelou is easily one of the most influential writers of our time, but not all of her work is universally loved. Her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has repeatedly topped the list of most challenged and banned books in American classrooms since it was first greenlit to be part of public school curriculum in the 1980s. Angelou’s inclusion of sexually explicit material and racism in the book — all pulled from her real life experiences — has raised the ire of conservatives generation after generation, making it one of the most controversial school reads ever.
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How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi (2019)
Although racism is as American as apple pie, the past few years have brought about an especially troubling uptick in xenophobic, bigoted sentiment across the United States. Even more concerning are the people in power claiming that any attempts to highlight the history of racism in this country are actually “anti-white” — including author and activist Ibram X. Kendi’s nonfiction book How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi’s work addresses the mounting prejudices we witness every day, asserting that the only acceptable response to racism is anti-racism — actively confronting and challenging the problematic status quo. The book offers up both individual and systemic solutions for people looking to be the change they want to see in the world.
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Monday's Not Coming - Tiffany D. Jackson (2018)
When parents raised issues with Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Monday’s Not Coming and asked for it to be removed from school libraries, many claimed that the problem was the book’s sexually explicit material — at least, the snippets of it that they read. But we suspect that the problem wasn’t just those excerpts (which were taken out of context); the book’s controversy likely also stemmed from Jackson’s intentional exploration of the devastating ways that racism and anti-Blackness can contribute and even exacerbate mental illness.
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Salvage the Bones - Jesmyn Ward (2011)
After living through Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward wanted to make sure that one of the country’s most deadly natural disasters would always be remembered, so she wrote Salvage the Bones, a story about a working class family’s survival in the midst of the massive storm. The book confronts real life themes of race, poverty, sex and gender, but several school districts took offense to Ward’s frank discussion of statutory rape and teen pregnancy.
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The Color Purple - Alice Walker (1982)
You’ve seen the Oscar-winning epic starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Cicely Tyson and maybe even the tony-winning Broadway musical, but did you know that Alice Walker’s original story almost didn’t make it into school libraries? Since its release in 1982, conservative parents have made numerous efforts to keep it out of students’ hands, citing religious objections against Walker’s inclusion of homosexuality, violence, explicit language, and Black history as reasons for children not to read the book. Most of those school bans didn’t stick, but even today, The Color Purple is still prohibited in all Texas state prisons.
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American Street - Ibi Zobo (2017)
Ibi Zobo’s American Street tells the heart wrenching tale of a newly immigrated Haitian teenager’s struggle to acclimate to her new American reality. The book is clear about how the meaning of “freedom” depends heavily on the intersections of our respective identities — something that isn’t sitting well with people still peddling the idea of the American Dream. Unsurprisingly, American Street has been challenged in several schools.
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Red At The Bone - Jacqueline Woodson (2019)
The Leander Independent School District has repeatedly made headlines for aggressively challenging and banning books — including Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone, a coming of age novel set in Brooklyn that follows three generations of Black women contending with the generational trauma passed down from their mothers. In a 2021 open letter to the distinct, Woodson and other authors on Leander’s banned books list pushed back against the censorship efforts, questioning the true motives behind banning their work.
“We are concerned that allegations against the ‘appropriateness’ of these books for students has to do with whose stories they tell,” read the letter. “We are deeply concerned that this entire episode risks sending a dangerous message to students: that the best way to confront ideas or literature with which one disagrees is to prohibit or silence it, rather than finding other, constructive ways to engage with it.”
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All American Boys - Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds (2015)
Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds add to the ongoing conversation about police brutality and systemic racism in All American Boys, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor book and winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature novel about a close friendship that is pushed to its limits when one friend is assaulted by a police officer. The plot alternates between Black and white perspectives, clearly displaying the ways that privilege impacts the way we are perceived and treated in this country. Unfortunately, some found it “divisive,” claiming that Kiely and Reynolds’ book was inappropriate because of its use of explicit language and its “anti-police bias.”