What student doesn’t want to see — or read — characters that remind them of themselves, their loved ones, and their own experiences?
But this concept is fueling a raging war on the written word across the United States. Conservative-led school boards and parent groups are successfully stripping literature centered on race and the LGBTQ+ community from classrooms.
RELATED: Is Book Banning Here to Stay?
These book bans follow state legislative moves to limit teaching on such topics. In just six months, “30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color,” according to PEN America. And the bans come in all shapes and sizes — from completely prohibited to simply pushed to higher grades. Vague new laws are giving parents and principals sweeping power to ax titles on a whim. The result: Books are being stripped from school buildings and library shelves day-by-day, state-by-state.
Particularly affected are award-winning books. We’re talking Toni Morrison, Maia Kobabe, and Ellen Hopkins — authors who openly explore the complex realities of Black and LGBTQ+ experiences. But school boards and state lawmakers are hiding these stories faster than you can blink
“Teachings and studying and promoting Black history is not about trying to make white people and white children feel bad,’’ Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, deputy director of the African American Museum of Dallas, recently told USA TODAY. “It’s just a part of American history. It’s also telling the truth that has been hidden so long.’’
Although Florida and Texas’ book bans have made headlines, censoring literature doesn’t only happen in those two states. Book bans continue to spread nationwide, impacting what children learn and the way educators are allowed to teach.
Different States, Similar Bans
Arizona: The 2022 law (H.B. 2495) requires parental approval to teach books or other material that make any references to sex. That means educators have to avoid classics like “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker because the book falls under the category of materials likely to spark controversy or complaint.
In February, a survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that as many as 25% of teaching positions across Arizona remain vacant, continuing a seven-year streak, and signal the laws may be counterproductive in bringing teachers back to the classroom.
Florida: Caily Myers, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education, recently told NBC News, “Florida does not ban books.” However bills passed in the state have restricted what literature can be taught in schools (and encouraged teaching that Black people benefitted from enslavement.) In the past year, the legislation has prompted the removal of roughly 300 books across classrooms and library shelves and even booted a film about Ruby Bridges from the curriculum.
Missouri: A law originally written to create important new protections for sexual assault survivors (S.B. 775) was amended before passage to include a provision making it a Class A misdemeanor for librarians or teachers to provide “explicit sexual material” to a student.
This “explicit sexual material” being referred to includes books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Fences,” which have both become staples in Black literature. This law also puts librarians and teachers on the front lines to be arrested and charged for providing youth their right to read. Students in Missouri have spoken out against the book bans, including graduate Nicholas Jungen from Nixa High School in Nixa, Missouri.
“Yeah, take away books; we have the internet,” Jungen said. “It’s a vast place. You can really fall down some holes that are worse than some of the content that these books offer.”
Utah: The state’s “Sensitive Materials in Schools Act” (H.B. 374) went into effect this school year and “prohibits certain sensitive instructional materials in public schools.” The state attorney general’s office issued guidance directing school districts “to immediately remove books from school libraries that are categorically defined as pornography under state statute.”
The unexpected result? A parent-led panel got the Bible booted off library shelves on the grounds of “vulgarity or violence.” So, back in June, education leaders voted unanimously to reverse the decision.
Tennessee: The passage in 2022 of the “Age-Appropriate Materials Act” (SB, 2407) led to a memorandum that mandated the cataloging of books in classroom and school libraries. A series of “wholesale bans” were reported by teachers on social media or in school board meetings, as they decided to remove classroom library collections rather than put themselves at risk of punishment. As recently as August 2023, parents in Williamson County sued the school board for allowing books that “create pornographic visual images wholly inappropriate for middle school students, high school students, or any age or level of maturity.”
A 2024 Ballot Issue
It’s likely this issue will be on the ballot and in the debates as we head into the primaries later this year and the 2024 election cycle.
“We’re deeply disturbed by efforts by elected officials, particularly state legislators to adopt laws that are intended to censor books dealing with gender identity, sexual orientation, and race and racism in the United States, removing them from school library school curricula in particular,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Black Education Research Center, tells Word In Black.
It’s part of a crusade for people who believe LGBTQ+, race, and racial perspectives shouldn’t be taught in the classroom, says Dr. Sonya Douglass, professor of education leadership at Teachers College, Columbia University. Topics that deal “with issues of race or racial perspectives that aren’t necessarily in line with the white dominant view,” are being censored. Douglass says it’s about creating fear and confusion to turn out a base that has been effective in the past.
So it’s time for people who don’t support these bans to speak up, Douglass says. And it’s an opportunity for educators to make sure they aren’t shying away from things that make them uncomfortable, but rather equipping themselves with tools to “support and educate ourselves and young people for what it means to live in a diverse society.”
To ensure that keeps happening, organizations like the Zinn Education Project, American Library Association, PEN America, and other grassroots groups recommend that racial justice and free speech-oriented folks work together to fight these bans. Students, parents, and other community members can participate in efforts that provide access or free books to people. Folks can also join boards that work to protect intellectual materials already on library and classroom shelves.
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