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 April 2022, Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) launched Books Unbanned, a program to help readers ages 13-21 access their digital library system. The mission is simple: reading without inhibition. Since then, over 6,000 digital e-cards have been distributed, leading to over 50,000 books being checked out from the library. This month, BPL is teaming up with PEN America to launch their first Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute, a four-week program open to all high school students nationwide. (Note: as of this writing, registration has closed for this program).
These are but two actions against the latest wave of book bans. Both the school yard and library stacks have become a playground for politically charged activity, and books continue to be moving targets. Since 2021 alone, over 1600 different book challenges have popped up in over 32 states, PEN America reports. Unsurprisingly, there’s an upward trend of books that feature characters of color or queer characters being targeted.
Laws targeting critical race theory are not unlike their anti-literacy predecessors. The cycle repeats itself. Slave owners once feared that if enslaved people learned to read or write, they could assemble and end their oppression. Several scholars point to the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina as the origin of the first law banning enslaved people from learning how to read. Soon after, several other states enacted laws restricting enslaved and freed African-Americans from reading, and from others teaching them how to read. Literacy has always been a tool of power. The slave narratives written at that time are some of our earliest first person accounts of the brutality of enslavement.
An abolitionist approach to understanding book bans requires moving away from the altruism that is often assigned to libraries and schools as public goods and instead applying a lens that recognizes institutions as flawed at best, deeply racist and hegemonic at worst. It means eliminating police from our schools and libraries but also eliminating the policing conversations around race and racism or sexuality and identity, or reducing them to the labels “sensitive” or “divisive” because there is nothing sensitive or divisive about being Black and queer.
An abolitionist approach to understanding book bans requires moving away from the altruism that is often assigned to libraries and schools as public goods and instead applying a lens that recognizes institutions as flawed at best, deeply racist and hegemonic at worst.
Alex Brown is a queer Black school librarian, author, historian and book critic. They say the issue of representation in children’s and young adult literature as well as the resurgence of book bans and book challenges often comes in waves. They point to the work of Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, whose 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” talks about the perils of children of color not being reflected in the stories they read. Thirty years later, publishing remains largely white and mostly straight. Yet, according to PEN America, of the number of books challenged last year, 40% have been books that feature main characters of color. Of that number, 41% of the books that have been challenged also feature LGBTQIA themes or characters. When I think about Black and queer readers, there are so many ways they are being harmed by these challenges.
Alex encourages approaching book challenges with nuance. They argue there’s a difference between To Kill a Mockingbird being challenged and The Bluest Eye. The former is often challenged by people who see the book as racist and would rather encourage reading a book written by a Black author about racism. The latter is often challenged because of racism. This is why Alex advocates for a neutrality-free approach to book bans. “We can have conversations here about changing curriculum,” they add, but there’s a difference between threatening imprisonment for defending a book and having a difference of opinion on said book’s value.
If you look closely at what’s going on in our classrooms and libraries across the country, you’ll notice it's not unlike what’s happening in prisons. This is intentional. Natalie and Sage, two organizers in Los Angeles, say this is because what happens to people in prisons isn't isolated to prisons. “That's going to extend into the framework of society. We see it with bans in schools and in libraries. This is all coming from the same place, and it's starting with the people who are least noticed.” Natalie and Sage work with Noname Book Club, where reading is used as a tool for Black liberation. As such, the books selected by Noname Book Club are meant to disrupt white supremacist thinking and invite readers to engage in deep study of Black radical traditions with a goal of moving our collective consciousness towards abolition.
There’s a difference between threatening imprisonment for defending a book and having a difference of opinion
Two years ago, Noname Book Club launched their Prison Program to share radical books with incarcerated folks. Since its launch, the club has grown massively and sends over 1100 books monthly to incarcerated members. Every so often, books are returned to their LA headquarters for inconsistent reasons. Regulation is deliberately confusing because prisons “are places that operate without accountability, and with no real oversight” says Sage. Coupled with the different classifications for prisons, each facility often operates as its own system of power within a larger industrial complex.
Over in our education and library systems, district or county specific oversight lends itself to similar challenges. PEN America reports at least 138 individual districts with book bans, a number that continues to grow. Inside the classroom, the use of diverse texts by marginalized authors has been met with pushback in some instances. Lifelong educator and teacher-librarian Julia E. Torres says this is because culturally responsive pedagogy is offensive to the status quo. Julia, who is the newly appointed Teen Services Program Administrator in Denver Public Libraries, believes many of these attempts by lawmakers are stifling the growth of all students. “Folks think that they're protecting young people by sterilizing or sanitizing the intellectual environment in which they grow,” says Torres. Often, sanitizing that learning environment is another way to enact racism.
“Racism is innovative,” says Natosha Daniels. “We need to be innovative also.” Natosha and Tiffanie Harrison are former Round Rock ISD classroom educators and two members of the Round Rock Black Parents’ Association leadership team. The organization successfully fought for the inclusion of Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You in classrooms. When a middle school teacher first learned that the book was in jeopardy of being pulled from the curriculum, she began a petition and connected with the Round Rock Black Parents’ Association. Soon after, the parents, educators, and community members who make up the organization stepped up and showed out at school board meetings and argued for the book’s place in the curriculum.
It should be noted in most cases where laws targeting critical race theory and books that speak to race and racism are not concerned with the way children of color experience racism but rather how white students will be made to feel about themselves learning about instances of atrocities people of color have faced in history.
Censorship as a result of laws targeting critical race theory and “divisive concepts” is but one component that continues to make libraries and schools unsafe for all. This is why Tiffanie urges us to remember: “This is more than book bans. We are under attack. This is fascism.” The Round Rock Black Parents’ Association is a much needed example of parents and community members coming together for the sake of young people and amplifying their voice alongside them. The advocacy group works to empower Black families to hold the school district accountable for the betterment of Black students. Recently, they held a Title VI training for parents to help them know the rights of their students in the classroom and how to push back against instances of racism that take place within schools.
Our students’ interests are being watched by people who think they need to be protected from reality and truth. It should be noted in most cases where laws targeting critical race theory and books that speak to race and racism are not concerned with the way children of color experience racism but rather how white students will be made to feel about themselves learning about instances of atrocities people of color have faced in history. It should also be questioned who sees materials that introduce ideas about people’s differences as sensitive and inappropriate.
The issue of banned books is one that is about surveillance and control. It’s about policing both the pleasure and power of all people, but especially those who are seen as incapable of making sound decisions for themselves. This is why abolitionists are vocal about looking at how our libraries and schools function. As Julia reminds me, “Schools are supposed to be a place where curiosity is nurtured and protected and where we learn to develop those skills of critical consciousness.” I’d argue that the same should be said of libraries.As several states enacted laws prohibiting enslaved and free African-Americans from reading, abolitionists argued for literacy as a fundamental right and necessity for African-Americans. Today, instead of outlawing literacy outright, censorship is being used as a tool to restrict marginalized people in prisons, libraries, and schools. Which begs the question, what are lawmakers so afraid students will do if they are taught from a culturally responsive lens? If they learn the history of racism in this country? If they read stories where they are reflected in the characters? Clearly, for the powers that be, fully actualized beings who understand where they come from and what their people endured are very dangerous.