According to a report from PEN America, book bans are at an all-time high and are continuing to surge across the country. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America tracked over 2,500 books that have been banned or are in the process of being banned across the country, many of which were written by LGBTQIA+ authors or authors of color and contain topics related to racism, sexuality, and gender. Now, students, librarians, and advocates are organizing to defend the freedom to read.
“There are still political extremists with an agenda out there trying to tear schools down,” said Heather Harding, the executive director of Campaign for Our Shared Future (COSF). “If we aren’t careful, our students are going to fall victim to harmful legislation that’s being pushed and passed … by opportunistic politicians who are looking to score points. We cannot pretend that this is not a real threat to our students.”
COSF is a nonprofit pushing back against attacks on K-12 education. Harding hopes to look at the legislative agendas and school board elections that will shape 2023 to better fight against the type of censorship contributing to an erasure of Black and LGBTQIA+ history and identities in classrooms.
“The fight is far from over,” said Harding. “And we don’t feel like we can let our guard down.”
In Florida, a high school English teacher in Escambia County is trying to ban 150 books from school libraries, one of which is about Black Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph. The teacher calls the book “race-baiting,” “anti-white,” and in violation of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits instruction that would lead students to “feel guilt, anguish … because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”
In November, Texas’ Keller Independent School District officially banned library books related to the concept of gender fluidity. Three new school board members elected in May, who have starkly conservative views on race, gender, and sexuality, pushed the ban.
“Throughout Texas classrooms, discussion is banned on controversial current events and anything that makes someone feel anguish for being a particular race, rather, anguish for being privileged,” said Cameron Samuels, a recent Texas high school graduate. “Students across the country are facing the chilling effect of censorship. And it’s imperative for parents, schools, and organizations to join students and take a stand against policies that deteriorate our education.”
Samuels rallied students against book bans and district-imposed internet blocks on LGBTQIA+ websites in 2021. Samuels says the bans stem from a “culture war” agenda and are rooted in misinformation, and they are calling on students to attend school board meetings and advocate for their rights.
“We need the support from others in the community as well,” Samuels said. “There are school board meetings where students especially are underrepresented. We need students to attend and speak at school board meetings in their local districts. It’s a matter of speaking directly to decision-makers and demanding a seat at the table and policies that directly affect us and only us in everyday school experiences.”
However, extremists frequently target outspoken advocates who are against these bans. Amanda Jones, the 2020 Louisiana librarian of the year, spoke about censorship at a public library board meeting and was met with violent rhetoric and death threats.
“They’ve threatened me and my family to frighten me into silence,” said Jones. “For my students, my own children, every child in my community, I have refused to cower to the bullies who are using children to score political points in my community as they’re doing all across the country. I have become a target in my community.”
Though Jones has dealt with ongoing harassment, she said she was successful in stopping the censorship attempt on the public library.
“[Book censorship] restricts the free flow of ideas and limits our children’s ability to see themselves and to learn and grow,” said Jones. “I’ve seen firsthand the power of books, and I would do everything in my power to keep these books in students’ hands, in the hands of children in my community.”