Blog, Social Justice

In Many Small Communities, Fighting Book Censorship Has Become a Full-Time Job


book censorship - photograph of woman holding a stack of books

The other month, I finally got my hands on The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. The book grew out of a long-form journalism project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times Magazine, which was originally published in August 2019. According to that special edition of the magazine, the project’s aim was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The book, published just this past November, builds upon that project, incorporating additional contributors who expound on a broader range of topics through essays, fiction, and poetry. It is an astounding work of scholarship and a necessary tool for uplifting stories and voices that have historically been silenced.

At one point, educators in all 50 states taught curricula based upon the project. Within months, however, there were government attempts to prevent it from being taught in schools and universities.

Now, the book’s inclusion in school and community libraries has been decried many times over and, in a recent law in Texas that calls for teachers to explore contentious subjects “in a manner free from political bias,” it has the distinction of being the only title that is explicitly called out and banned.

But it’s far from the only book that’s faced public outcry in the past six months.

Book Censorship Attempts Have Risen to a Fever Pitch

Book censorship has long been A Thing. I’m not giving you new information here. Hell, I’ve owned a Banned Books mug and a pair of Banned Books socks for years. You might have them, too. They’re pretty darn popular.

But this past year, calls for censorship have become so frequent that my colleagues Kelly Jensen and Danika Ellis over at Book Riot—my other internet home—have been putting out weekly roundups of censorship-related news. And my god, the news is relentless.

From Pennsylvania to Indiana to New York to Texas, Board of Education meetings have been overrun by angry parents protesting the inclusion of certain books in classrooms and school libraries. Police have been called into community libraries to investigate the inclusion of “pornographic” texts on the shelves. Teachers have been pulled from their classrooms for teaching or recommending certain texts. Read-alouds and author visits have been canceled because of the allegedly contentious subject matter of the books in question. And most recently, a school board in Tennessee banned Maus, for god’s sake.

As a result, there’s been a chilling effect across the country, and even those who haven’t been called out or who don’t live in districts with explicit book-related “guidance” are now overly cautious about the materials they share with students.

Some of the subjects considered most dangerous? For one, any books that feature protagonists of color or of diverse sexualities and gender identities—and that preach diversity and inclusion—are no-nos. These books are considered to be teaching “critical race theory” or of sexually “grooming” students, because acknowledging that non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cis people exist is terrifying and very, very bad.

Other books frowned upon are those that contain “anti-police rhetoric,” which basically means they acknowledge that police violence exists.

And books that provide comprehensive sexuality education are denounced as filthy pornography.

Obviously.

On December 3, Kelly Jensen wrote that there had been more than 155 book challenges since June.

Where Is This Increase in Book Censorship Coming From?

Back in August, I wrote about how a conservative Christian law firm basically created the playbook for enacting state-by-state abortion bans. Similarly, in the case of book censorship, national groups are providing locals with tools for fomenting community outrage.

As reported by NPR, these groups “issue press releases, sell T-shirts and lawn signs, produce flyers and publicize events on social media, supply information and legal advice, offer template letters, scripts for public testimony, and model legislation. They put out webinars and trainings to give practical assistance to those who want to target or disrupt school boards.”

The groups spotlighted in the NPR article include conservative think tanks, extremist hate groups, nonprofit media companies, and even political action committees.

Local groups of concerned citizens, fired up by overblown reports of dangerous books and radical lesson plans mentioned in the media, have been taking these resources and running with them.

This New State Law Severely Curtails What Teachers Can Teach

Which brings us to the latest news out of Texas. Several weeks after Banned Books Week—which celebrates free speech—Texas State Representative Matt Krause emailed a list of 850 books to superintendents and asked if they were on the shelves of their school libraries.

“Please identify any other books or content in your District,” he wrote, “specifying the campus location and funds spent on acquisition, that address or contain the following topics: human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Then, Texas legislators passed a law policing how teachers may approach instruction that touches upon race and gender. You can dig into the law here but, similarly to Krause’s letter, teachers are told that they should not instill a sense of guilt or discomfort in students because of their race or sex, nor can they be forced to discuss current controversial topics in the classroom. If they do, they must not show any political bias.

At a loss as to what to make of this new legislation, some administrators have come up with interesting interpretations of the law. In one case, a North Texas administrator leading a training session on the law told teachers they had to provide materials that presented an “opposing” perspective of the Holocaust.

Educators are, understandably, confused as hell. This, in turn, makes some of them very cautious.

Laws like this one are a dark harbinger of what may occur in other states.

How Can You Combat Instances of Book Censorship Close to Home?

After months of weeding through endless news stories containing new instances of book censorship, Book Riot’s Jensen put together an anti-censorship toolkit. This resource is split up into sections for citizens and gatekeepers (educators, librarians, and administrators), and includes tips on everything from voting to showing up to board meetings to submitting materials requests and more. It’s a nice, meaty piece that I have permanently bookmarked in my browser.

Because I know that my fellow Feminist Book Clubbers are bookish and badass, I imagine that many of you are already doing a number of the action items mentioned in this resource.

Thank you for all the work that you do and let us know how we can support your local efforts.

But lord knows, I don’t want books that celebrate diversity and inclusion being erased from the bookshelves of my daughter’s classrooms. I don’t want to live in a world where she and her peers are purposely kept in the dark.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, VQR, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of GuerrillaSexEd.org. Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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