Outrage erupted when a Tennessee school district removed from its library Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust. It was but one instance of escalating calls to prohibit certain writings. In December 2021, a San Antonio K-12 district pulled 400 volumes after a Texas legislator demanded a review of 850 “objectionable” titles.
The following month, Southern pastor and QAnon supporter Greg Locke staged a bonfire burning of the most banned writing in America: Harry Potter. The sight was horrifyingly reminiscent of Nazi acts in 1933 Germany.
The works under the ax have one thing in common: they raise the ire of the Christian right. Most frequently challenged are those that focus on race, sex, and gender. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones on the legacy of slavery, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander all have faced removal. Frequently targeted are the lesbian-oriented young adult novels of Julie Anne Peters, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, and Wandering Son by Takako Shimura, Japanese manga with a transgender main character.
The American Library Association reports an unprecedented uptick in book challenges that question a title. In 2020 there were 156, while in the last three months of 2021 there were over 330. The main battleground is school boards, especially those of middle schools, but community libraries are also impacted.
Calculated culture war. This widespread crusade is an organized effort from conservative groups like Parents Defending Education (PDE), Moms for Liberty, and No Left Turn in Education. These “astroturfs,” so named because they are not real grass-roots community groups, find a local supporter to take up the cause. Then, they are supplied with templates for challenges, lists of books to target, and even sample speeches.
Many ties link Parents Defending Education and other groups to K-12 privatizers. PDE’s president Nicole Neilly was previously employed by the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank that pushes charter schools. The same deep pocket folks who planned the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C., and who promote privatizing education, are funding these astroturfs: the Bradley Foundation, Republican mega-donor Charles Koch, and the Heritage Foundation.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind — zero — that what groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education are doing is … aimed at the destruction and ultimate privatization of America’s public school system,” concludes Maurice T. Cunningham, author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization.
PEN America, dedicated to defending free expression, says school book bans are related to a rash of “gag orders” on instructional content. At least 28 states have proposed actions to restrict classroom discussions of racism, sex education, and gender identity. In Indiana, a bill adds “anti-American ideologies” to the list of forbidden teachings and Florida has pending a “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Dangerous impacts. At a time when LGBTQ+ folk and people of color are finally gaining some visibility and voice, making literature by and about them inaccessible is especially damaging. Young people, in particular, suffer from not seeing themselves in media depictions. This suppression also deprives youth of learning the history of marginalized communities and leads to a lack of empathy across differences.
The American Library Association (ALA) calls out removals for having a “chilling effect” on discussions of racism and gender issues consequently increasing bullying and suicides. George M. Johnson, the author of All Boys Aren’t Blue about growing up Black and queer, points out that his writing teaches valuable lessons about consent and issues teenagers face. The ALA also clarifies that libraries are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech.
Sweeping resistance. Across the country, young people are in the forefront of a vibrant fightback. Banned book clubs have popped up everywhere. Students protest outside their classrooms and testify at school board meetings. In Texas, one gay-led club plans to rally at the state Capitol. Demonstrations in Pennsylvania and Virginia prevented the removal of various works. In Georgia, the student-run organization Our Turn works to ensure that pupils can learn about racism regardless of banished material.
Pittsburgh high schoolers started a podcast to feature endangered literature. The Georgia Youth Justice Coalition has joined legislative efforts to oppose censorship bills. Students have distributed hundreds of challenged novels. In Texas, an online request for donations to purchase titles was filled within 24 hours. “Why do we have to remove books about Black people and Asian Americans simply for the sake of white people’s comfort?” said Maghan Sadeghi, a Texas senior involved in a giveaway event.
Parents have joined the fight. Their protests in Wyoming succeeded in keeping LGBTQ+ works on shelves. In Texas, the Round Rock Black Parents Association successfully fought to keep Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds on the district reading list. Two moms founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project to return disappeared volumes.
Especially active are librarians and teachers. They are defying attempts to limit the literature available in classes, braving hefty fines, firings, and criminal charges. The Unicorn Express led by teachers and librarians sends free LGBTQ+ titles by mail to youth living where bans have been enacted.
Labor unions representing teachers and librarians are involved. “My union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history. We have a legal defense fund ready to go,” said Randi Weingarten, President of AFT.
FReadom Fighters (FReadom.us), a Texas group started by four librarians, has spread the anti-censorship movement across the country. They report that when the mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi withheld $110,000 of county library funds until every LGBTQ+ volume was removed from the shelves, the community raised that much in 11 days to counter his action.
Bookstores across the country have set up displays of banned books, and sales are soaring. Maus shot to top seller on Amazon in January of 2022. In Tennessee, Nirvana Comics raised over $100,000 to buy and hand out copies of the novel. Censored authors like Walter Mosley and Margaret Atwood are speaking out to defend their writings.
This creative, bold resistance is a slap in the face of the far right. The blossoming challenges to their culture war are encouraging, especially those by students and unions. May this resistance flourish and link up with other fightbacks.
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