As libraries, books stores, and free speech advocates observe Banned Books Week, students and parents in Central Pennsylvania are celebrating the fact that their activism successfully reversed an attempt to ban dozens of books and other educational materials by authors of color.
First created in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to a rise in challenges to books and other learning materials, Banned Books Week celebrates and tracks the titles school administrators and others try to keep away from readers. Recent events in Central York, Pennsylvania, illuminates the way book censorship is used by its proponents as a tool to shape how diversity and race are taught in schools today.
In fall 2020, the Central York School District, located two hours west of Philadelphia, made national headlines for its attempt to ban a list of books and educational resources that centered authors and filmmakers of color. The list, which was created by Central York’s diversity education specialist as a resource for teachers looking to diversify the curriculum, included everything from chapter books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks to bestselling young adult novels like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which tells the stories of teens facing discrimination.
While school districts attempting to ban books by BIPOC authors is nothing new, what was striking about the Central York case was the nature of the ban, says Nora Pelizarri, the director of communications at the National Coalition Against Censorship.
“This wasn’t an attack on a book or a few books,” she said. “This was an attack on an entire curriculum. They were saying, ‘I don’t think people should read anything on this list.’ The reason those books are on this list is because they teach a diverse perspective.”
But while all of the books banned were either by BIPOC authors or discussed communities of color, the school board has insisted it was just a coincidence.
“Concerns were based on the content of the resources, not the author or topic,” said Central York School Board President Jane Johnson in a statement to CNN.
It wasn’t until weeks of highly publicized protests by students that the district announced on Sept. 20 that it would reverse the year-long ban, insisting that the controversy was based on a misunderstanding and the district’s failure to properly vet the books on the list.
“What we are attempting to do is balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature [and] materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content,” Johnson said during the Sept. 20 meeting. “To that end, we recognize the intensity of opinions on all sides of these issues, and we are committed to making this long delay right.”
Parents and students say the attempt to ban the curriculum signaled just how uncomfortable the district was with discussions about racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and discussions that centered BIPOC experiences.
“It’s our classrooms, what we’re being taught, it’s the education that we’re learning. So if anything, I think we should have the biggest hand in what we’re learning,” Central York High School senior Edha Gupta told reporters before the ban was lifted.
Community members also say they were not aware of the depth and reach of the ban until recent coverage of the ban by York Dispatch and others. Jamie Hill, a Black graphic designer and the father of a third-grader in the district, was among those outraged by the ban. To draw attention to the censorship, he created the Central York Banned Book Club account on Twitter, where he systematically tweeted the titles of each of the books banned.
“I had woken up and all of these authors like Brad Meltzer [the bestselling author of I am Rosa Parks] started tweeting about it,” Hill recalled. “That’s where it kind of took off.”
Hill notes that community members were particularly disturbed by the ban because the district’s diversity committee had been highly praised and was seen as a model for other schools in the region.
“Whenever there were other [schools] that were thinking of starting diversity committees in their districts, they’d come to our diversity committee to take notes,” Hill said.
Hill attributes the sudden shift to the district’s approach to anti-racism education to a combination of factors, including the backlash to last year’s protests after the death of George Floyd, the debate around critical race theory—which is not taught in K-12 education—and the changing demographics of the community itself. Currently, about one-third of the student body in the Central York School District is made up of students of color. He also noted that the fight around the book ban occurred while the community members were contesting what he described as the district’s inconsistent approach to COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I feel like there’s been some emboldening going on as well since the end of the Trump presidency, which gives them more cover,” he said. “There are still a lot of Trump signs up here, and that’s perfectly fine, but I just feel that they are so emboldened that they feel they can do these things when no one is paying attention.”
The Central York School District’s ban reflects a change in recent years when it comes to banned books. While in 2019, the majority of books challenged centered on LGBTQ+ issues, “in this past year, we’ve sort of seen an equivalent number of challenges that are addressing books that dealt with race and racism,” Pelizarri said, adding that the discussion about what schools should be teaching has dramatically shifted.
“There’s also been this misrepresentation of teaching about something as indoctrination, so teaching about history from the perspective of BIPOC voices is somehow seen as indoctrinating students into believing certain things,” she said. “In fact, it’s just giving students more viewpoints to reckon with.”
As Central York High School student protesters and others have shown, students, parents, and community members do have recourse when it comes to pushing back against book bans.
“So often what happens is that parents or students don’t quite know whether what’s happening is actually censorship, and they don’t know what their rights are,” she said. That’s why speaking with other community members and reaching out to anti-censorship organizations can be critical.
“Finding the allies is really important,” she said. “It tends to be a very vocal minority that think kids should be kept from books.”