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“I Can’t Shut Down Because I Tell The Truth:” How Black Banned Authors Are Caring For Themselves

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.
Black folx have always had a way with words. How our tongues twist and mouths curve to tell stories is an art mastered over generations of storytelling that has naturally evolved into award-winning written works. Black stories — from sci-fi to romance — are how we keep our history alive, combat injustice, and experience worlds beyond our own. But the greatness of such storytelling in this country is often viewed as a threat to traditional systems, conservative views and the catalyst for banning books by Black authors.
The increase in banned Black authors from schools and libraries is hard not to notice, especially in recent years. As the suppression of critical race theory endangers the quality of the education system, so does the stomping out of stories centering on issues of race, queer sexuality, and white supremacy. If you’re not convinced of this country’s agenda to silence our stories, consider George M. Johnson’s New York Times bestselling memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue — it has become one of the most banned books in the U.S. because it sheds light on the LGBTQIA+ experience.
Nevertheless, bans on books have not been without resounding outrage and fierce pushback. In February 2022, two students in Missouri sued the Wentzville school district after eight books were banned, including Johnson’s memoir and Heavy: An American Memoir by Andrew Carnegie Medalist recipient Kiese Laymon. Soon after, in April, a group of residents in Llano County, Texas, filed a lawsuit against library board members for pulling award-winning literature from its shelves, which included Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, an examination of America’s racial hierarchies. Likewise, The National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter of objection to Broward County for removing Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys, a story about a young boy shot by police, from its schools.
To say the least, it’s a damaging time in history for marginalized students and authors alike, the latter of which are subjected to reliving past traumas Black folx constantly endure with each disappointing headline. As political bodies continue to challenge both progressive and accurate narratives with widespread censorship, these events beg the question: How do banned Black authors feel, and how are they caring for themselves? Below, Kiese Laymon, Jewell Parker Rhodes and Junauda Petrus share their experiences.

I ain't gonna let no hot mess of a human who don't even know they own history and light distract me from life's sweetness.

Junauda Petrus

Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir

“I was sad that whoever banned Heavy also banned the greatest fiction of Earth's history, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, but I thought I must have done something right. Banning books with no discussion should damage the integrity of a school board or town. It should reveal that the desire to erase the work of Black, brown, queer writers is why this nation is rotting. Banning books is an extension of over-policing Black bodies and minds. That’s why it's important for parents to read the books these people want to ban. Talk to your child who is on TikTok talking greasy to their friends and watching all kinds of violence about why banning a book is the way to protect. 
To navigate this censorship, I try to bust their heads with every book I write but [help readers] find new ways to love and explore us. They hate our radical Black love. Their hatred fuels me. But also their mediocrity is so funny. We laugh at sorry-ass white folx who want to harm us where I grew up, then we style on them by loving our own.
I'm terrible at self-care [in these situations], so I just write and try to be good at love and being loved. [All we can do is] keep writing and keep reading and keep organizing with Black abundance and innovation as our bedrock. And, we can accept our greatness while continually being honest about our personal and collective failures.”

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Ghost Boys 

“I was honestly shocked when Ghost Boys was banned. I spent two and a half years writing a book that educators and parents could use to discuss the differences between racism and unconscious bias. The book is about love and how children, in terms of their open-heartedness, can help rid the world of oppression, discrimination, and prejudice to become a collective group of heroes and heroines who engage in an affirmative, nonviolent change. We are failing in our job as educators and parents and adults to equip our children with the skills they need to be responsible citizens if we take away discourse around these issues. We're saying we want our kids to grow up in a fantasy rather than to be prepared to take over and run the world. And they will run the world. They're going to be old enough to vote, and they will be reshaping our destiny, so important conversations must be had to get them to be educated and to be a citizen in the deepest, deepest sense.
There are a lot of young writers today who are just so self-assured that they're just going to stand up and speak. When I was a young writer, the banning would make me want to shut down. But of course, today, I can't shut down because I tell the truth, I'm an artist, and I have a commitment to my craft and my own humanity more than anything else. If I had been a different kind of person, I would have quit, but I was born to tell stories and educate.”

Junauda Petrus, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them

“Book banning​​ shows that white folx can only love themselves if they are forcing the fiction of their singularity and perfection onto this world through the power of text. I'm so grateful to Black feminists, queer thinkers, and lovers who create texts of love, depth, and soulfulness for and about our people. Black kids should get to see powerful, dynamic, limitless, complex, love-filled examples of the legacy of beauty and power they are from. And all kids deserve to learn the truth about the wounds and legacies of our nation. Native kids, Asian American, Latinx, and white kids need to learn truthful history so that they can build a future of healing and alchemy. If white kids keep learning that them and their ancestors' shit don't stink, that is violent and reckless to all of our survival.
For self-care, I focus on my stories and my mental and physical wellness by taking walks in my neighborhood, epic baths with all of the salts and oils, and snuggling with my beloveds. I take time to be with my ancestors and thank them for all that they hold for me in my life. I’m also a multi-discipline performance artist, dancer, and runaway witch who lives and loves in the expansive cosmic sweetness of Blackness in any way I can — through dance and being around life-affirming vibrations like all of the brilliance of Black soul music. I just started studying vogueing and have been writing a lot of poetry again.
This year, I'm having a ‘90s love affair with myself. Slow and present, limitless and non-digital. So in some ways, I have been not letting myself focus on all of the ways that these idiots want to distract us with their nonsense and fuckery. I ain't gonna let no hot mess of a human who don't even know they own history and light distract me from life's sweetness.”

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