Thanks to food deserts — or as some folks call it, “food apartheid” — there are cities across the United States where Black families have to drive several miles to access fresh food at a supermarket. Then there’s the reality that about 2 million Black Americans live in cardiology deserts — counties without cardiologists.
But the lack of resources that disproportionately impacts Black communities isn’t limited to food or health care. Access to literature is also often limited in Black neighborhoods.
Nearly half of American children live in a book desert — places that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten defines as “neighborhoods that lack public libraries and stores that sell books, or in homes where books are an unaffordable or unfamiliar luxury.”
If students don’t have books at home or in their neighborhood, they rely on what’s available in schools — in the classroom and campus library.
But good luck finding banned and challenged books like “The Gift of Ramadan” by Rabiah York Lumbard and Laura K. Horton and “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison if students live in a place impacted by censorship.
Indeed, the importance of access to books comes at a time when police, politicians, and parents angry about students being taught the truth about racism in the U.S. are doing their best to strip literature that reflects the Black experience out of public schools and libraries.
The epicenter of these efforts? Florida and the attempts led by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to eliminate the teaching of accurate U.S. history and kill off access to diverse books.
That’s why as part of a larger effort to make books more accessible, and directly combat these anti-history book bans, the national nonprofit Little Free Library and creative marketing agency Venables Bell + Partners have teamed up on the Unbanned Book Club.
The initiative, launched in late June, is kicking things off by providing Duval County, Florida — Jacksonville is the county seat — with banned or challenged books and eliminating the book deserts in the area. Duval County has been a hotspot for the topic of book bans, removing over 176 books according to PEN America’s January 2022 review.
“We sort of came up with this idea of how we can have an impact, and help a community in particular, that’s really being impacted by the book bans and the representation that is so needed,” says Brittni Hutchins, associate partner and chief growth officer at Venables Bell + Partners.
Indeed, the initiative, backed by publishers such as Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, and Florida nonprofit 904Ward, opened its first physical location — a specially-branded Little Free Library — in North Jacksonville, Florida, last week.
“The way we’re approaching this is with community-based partners like 904Ward, who understand where physical locations would best serve communities that are underserved in terms of access to books,” Greig Metzger, executive director of Little Free Library, tells Word In Black.
But with politicians nationwide copying the DeSantis “Stop W.O.K.E.” playbook — and conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and others continuing to protest books and curricula related to race — initiatives like the Unbanned Book Club are needed nationwide.
“The restrictions on access to books are everywhere, Metzger says. “It’s important that we bring this issue to front and center, not only in Duval County but frankly across the country.”
Expansion plans are in the works, but in the meantime, folks who don’t live in Duval County can support the effort by purchasing banned or challenged books on the Unbanned Book Club’s summer reading list.
“15% of those proceeds go back to Little Free Library, which serves as part of a donation, and they can place those in Little Free Libraries, where they live,” Hutchins says.
In addition to their current efforts, the initiative will distribute 200 kits containing banned books that can be placed in local Little Free Libraries. Folks are also encouraged to show their support on social media using the hashtags #unbannedbookclub and #unbanbooks.
During a time when race and LGBTQ+ rights are increasingly under fire, when the very fabric of human rights in the U.S. is being challenged, the quiet revolution of the Unbanned Book Club signals something more. It signals that every community deserves access to stories that broaden horizons and tell the truth. It signals that even in deserts, we can create an oasis.
Metzger reiterates that everybody needs access to books — and we need to take action against efforts to remove them from schools and public libraries.
“We need to ring the alarm bells, for lack of better words, as much as we possibly can,” he says.