A recent spate of book bans have accelerated at schools across the U.S., and students, activists, and educators from marginalized communities are aggressively speaking out against them—especially since many of the recent bans have disproportionately targeted BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors.
Between September and November last year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 330 censorship incidents—up by 156 in all of 2020. In Texas, where parents have been aggressively pursuing the censorship of books, there were 75 challenges in the first four months of the 2021-22 school year, and over the same period last year, there was only one. Parents and patrons initiate more than half of all the book challenges in the U.S., and most of the targeted books discuss race, gender, or sexuality. Most recently, Ridgeland, Mississippi, Mayor Gene McGee announced plans to withhold $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library System due to the presence of LGBTQ+ books.
“Book bans are ridiculous,” said Zakiyyah Ali, an educator, DEI consultant, and founder of the nonprofit Rebuilding Timbuktu, which aims to encourage more people to read and use Black authors for research and scholarship. “I feel they are definitely a form of censorship.”
Ali believes white supremacy embedded in the early founding of this country is responsible for the discomfort many white Americans feel about reading certain topics.
“I see people who are trying to prop up a world that they think is most suitable for their children without taking responsibility and accountability for who they are,” Ali said. In this fantasy world, Ali said the descendants of chattel slavery are left without a voice. “So it’s one group of people who’s appearing to call the shots about who should speak and who shouldn’t speak. And I have a problem with that.”
Amid ongoing efforts by Republican leaders in some states to ban hundreds of books, some national groups and community activists are taking steps to fight against it. In December, the National Coalition Against Censorship denounced the recent attack on books in a statement signed by hundreds of authors and national groups to speak out against it.
There have also been some recent efforts at the local level. Last year, the Round Rock Black Parents Association in Texas received national attention for successfully fighting a proposed ban of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibrahim X. Kendi. The group coordinated with partnering organizations and worked with local librarians to receive thousands of petition signatures opposing the book ban.
Keiawnna Pitts, the chief community catalyst of the organization, said her 12-year-old daughter and a friend started a book club before the recent bans “because they wanted to see themselves” and they wanted to see representation of Black culture outside of the history of slavery and with Black protagonists they can identify with and relate to.
Pitts said this fight is bigger than book bans: it’s about the erasure of anyone who is considered an “other,” anyone who doesn’t fit the idea of what is acceptable in a culture shaped by Eurocentric standards. She said removing books is the first step in taking away the experiences of children and opportunities for teachers to use these books as vehicles for teaching children empathy and how race impacts our lives today.
What students are losing
Book censorship has been proven to have far-reaching implications. Studies have shown that multicultural literature can increase empathy within students. Research has also shown that books with “objectionable” material reveal the true lives of students, and banning these books can foster isolation in children.
Apart from the impact banning books can have on students and their relationships, the Republican-led efforts to censor books has also been wildly unpopular. A CBS News and YouGov survey from last month found that 85% of Americans don’t believe books should be censored in school just because they contain political ideas they disagree with.
Dr. Frank Gettridge, a career educator and president of the National Public Education Support Fund, said banning books means missed opportunities to teach kids how to talk to each other.
“It’s truth. It’s education,” Gettridge said. “At what point do we just become human and learn to understand each other and try to do better for each other?”
He noted one book that has recently hit a potential ban list is “The Story of Ruby Bridges,” which is about the first Black student to enter a previously segregated school in 1960. Gettridge sees the slippery slope of divisive politics of white fear: censorship and bare bookshelves. Losing these books means losing connection with one another and missing out on learning more about American culture, history, and society.
Activists say the solution to these book bans is a multi-pronged approach: it requires collaboration from educators, parents, and students like Pitts’ daughter. Some groups other than the Round Rock Black Parents Association are continuing to step up to fight for inclusive literature in schools.
More than 200 students and parents in York, Pennsylvania, recently protested and won against a potential ban of books mostly related to people of color. There are groups in Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee—mainly suburban mothers—who are also rallying against book bans.
Gettridge said the answer to these bans is to continue galvanizing young people. Adults in leadership who we depend on to unify us are more focused on dividing us. He’s observing children speaking up because they’re the ones directly impacted.
“If they’re young enough to understand that something is wrong, why can’t we as adults understand that what’s true for the child is true for us?” Gettridge said.
Ali said young people today who are pushing back remind her of John Lewis’ speech in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was tired of being told, “Be patient and wait.”
“I think people just are not taking it anymore,” Ali said. “I think it comes down to a tolerance thing.” She added that people are giving themselves the agency to take up space when it comes to book bans.
Ali said educators should take up the fight and be prepared to “go for broke,” as James Baldwin once wrote in “A Talk to Teachers.”
“Education is not a space where you can play safe, where you can straddle the fence, and where you can be an impartial observer,” Ali said. The quote, “There are no partial observers,” is attributed to Black artist and activist Paul Robeson, whose work was banned after being targeted during the McCarthy era. “And as an educator, you have to decide what part of history or what side of history you’re going to be on. And you have to keep teaching the material in the most earnest, in the most honest, and in the most diverse way.”