As we have seen in recent years, there has been what some consider “an awakening” to our nation’s past and has sparked many uncomfortable conversations and debates about race, equality, and book bans. Although book bans are nothing new in our country, they threaten to silence stories and the people who wish to share them. But as history has shown us, attempting to take away one's freedom will only make the intended target stronger.
"The same sensibilities that informed those people to make it a criminal act for Black people to read are the ancestors of the same people who are making it a criminal act for their own children to read…There is some hysteria associated with the idea of reading that is all out of proportion with what happens when one reads."
Last year, I spoke to a group about the importance of writing our own stories. That means, writing our own experiences, our own lessons. For many of us, our past and present are laced with our culture, race, or communities. Most of the literature in bookstores or libraries is just that, the experiences of others shared with the world. When speaking to the group of career men and women, they were surprised to learn that in writing their experiences, their First Amendment Rights are in jeopardy and their free speech is wavering. And while we are in a new year, the United States is experiencing censorship of reading materials also known as book banning.
What's Book Banning?
Book banning is when individuals, government officials, or organizations work to remove certain books from bookstores, public and school libraries, and required reading lists because they object to their content, ideas, or themes and may deem the reading material as "Divisive." Most books that are being challenged target books by and about people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and other marginalized groups. Book banning is an attempt to control what can be taught in K-12 schools, universities, and the public. It is an attempt to control the narrative–controlling what is told and who gets to tell it.
Book banning is nothing new. It seems to happen in waves - every couple of years. But this year, there is an upsurge in the number of literature that is pulled from bookshelves. Just think about some of the books you were required to read in school. I am certain that at least 50% of those books are now banned.
Reasons for Book Banning
The reasons for book banning vary. Here is a list of the most often provided:
LGBTQIA -related subject matter
Racially charged/Racial issues
Historically offensive terminology
Sexual subject matter
Widely-known banned books:
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Bluest Eyes (and seemingly every Toni Morrison book)
The Hate You Give
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Surprised?)
Catcher in the Rye
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Hunger Games
Ruby Bridges Goes to School
Of Mice and Men
The 1619 Project
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Handmaiden's Tale
The Real Deal
Let's stop pussyfooting and be honest here. Book bans typically hide behind the excuse of not wanting kids to learn about certain ideals or disturbing content—an attempt to restrain discussion. Some parents feel as though their parental rights are infringed upon because they don’t want their children reading certain materials. Others see it as a means to purposely make a certain race of children feel ashamed. Many educators have said that a solution would be to review the reading list in advance and bring any concerns to the teacher. The parent(s) and teacher might be able to come to an agreement that will alter the assignment, allowing the student to read a different book. What is interesting to me is that the majority of the parents, school board members, etc., have never read or completed the literature they want removed from schools. It’s the idea that exposes some things that are, quite frankly, endemic to America and U.S. history, such as racism.
Critical Race Theory and book bans
Some who are in favor of banning books often cringe at the mention of Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic course (mostly on the collegiate level) that examines American institutions through the lens of race and racism and how it plays a role in today’s society.
Like books that are being chucked from shelves, some believe CRT is divisive and
will create a culture war (threats on cancel culture, political correctness, etc.). While others embrace the objective of CRT for its display of an honest account of our nation’s past and present in order to build a better future. The debate regarding CRT and book banning is so heated that, as we’ve seen, has become a political issue where some states have adopted laws that limit how, or even if public school instructors can talk about race. As history within Academia has proven, many groups have had an unfair advantage when it comes to who writes the history books and who dictates what is celebrated vs. what is omitted.
An example of this was when a college professor, James Loewen, discovered that his Black students were fed lies about the Reconstruction Era from their Mississippi textbooks. The “Lost Cause” textbooks (brought to you by the United Daughters of the Confederacy) not only erased the accomplishments of Black government leaders but omitted information about how some were run out of office using Klan-like tactics. Loewen was then inspired to co-write his own high school textbook called Mississippi Conflict and Change. While this book of truthful accounts of American history was published in 1974, like today, there were education boards and political figures who wanted the book banned from classrooms. You can learn more by reading, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
While some of the bans are from individual school boards pulling material from a curriculum or library, there is legislation that is attempting to be passed.
There were over 50 bills introduced since January of 2022 to ban books.
Oklahoma and Florida forbid the required reading of diversity if it had "little to do with that major."
Book Ban legislation in Oklahoma makes it a misdemeanor if books mention homosexuality (No more Color Purple)
In Texas, hundreds of books have been pulled from various schools
The American Library Association had 300 book challenges in the Fall of 2021
The New York Times has had 99,000 (perhaps more at this point) book challenges from their Best Seller’s List
Controversial books are not only being challenged in schools but any organizations that are affiliated with books. Last year, elected officials, such as Kirk Twigg of Spotsylvania, VA, referred to these efforts to remove materials as “book burning,” which we have seen throughout history. The most known book burning event was ordered by Adolf Hilter in 1933 when books written by Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemmingway, and Helen Keller were destroyed.
The Artist Criminal
In a speech given at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1937, he said, "From now on, we will wage a pitiless, purifying war against the last elements of our cultural decay.” It is known that Hitler wanted to eliminate Germany from all forms of art that he felt were not edifying to his race, desperately wanting to get rid of the "artist criminal." The idea that a book, play, painting, song, sculpture, or film can be deemed illegal is a concept that we should never have had to revisit in our society. The idea of illegal art is not exclusive to Germany, as we have seen in America with the 1947 arrest of Billie Holiday for performing Strange Fruit, a protest song promoting awareness of the lynchings of African Americans in the south. And while movies such as Disney's 1998 film, Ruby Bridges, are "temporarily banned" in a Florida school, some believe that removing art is simply throwing a blanket over our nation's past and could be the beginning of heavier cleansing of content.
When we look at whose art is censored or removed, it has always been interesting to see how films such as D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation continues to sell and is referenced in film and communications textbooks for Griffith's execution of cinematic techniques. Most of these books excuse the fact that the film, which had a viewing party hosted by President Woodrow Wilson in the White House, was an instrument of many deaths and beatings, and was the sole cause of the KKK's revival in various parts of the United States.
I have had the opportunity to speak with holocaust survivors. One, in particular, was a writer and civil rights activist named Gerda Weismann Klein who shared her experience in a concentration camp and finding the strength to write after losing her parents and brother during the holocaust. I can’t imagine not learning her story or about the adversity of so many people of color if I could pick up a book or tablet and read about them.
The Bright Side
As an author, a woman, and as an African American, I have accepted long ago that my Free Speech Rights are in jeopardy. But I am comforted in knowing that there are numerous organizations joining forces in response to these bans, such as the Left Bank Books Foundation which has provided free banned books to anyone who wants one. And then there are the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of American Publishers, and the National Association of College Stores which sponsors Banned Books Week. I am also grateful to, PEN America which is committed to ensuring that writers, journalists, and speakers and their words are protected.
I applaud public libraries and independent booksellers for having a healthy selection of books for everyone. I encourage you to support librarians as well as your local bookstores and authors by purchasing physical books.
When thinking about the arguments against critical race theory and those in favor of book banning, it simply leads me to strongly believe, that:
Education starts in the home. Racial or cultural education starts in the home and cannot afford to be left up to any school system to potentially delete or gloss over selected historic events.
Wasted Energy can be one's biggest enemy. If a book is not for you or your family, simply keep it moving. Life is too short to waste energy by attempting to silence others of their experiences, especially if it is not harming anyone.
Fear is real. It is sad. It is ugly. Fear often paints an imagined narrative that one may believe will come to fruition. The underlining reason that drives one to burn books, penalize artists, or fire educators is fear. Fear of the exposure of truth or a dark past. Fear of the loss of power. Fear of exposing children to something before you think they are ready. Fear of questions. Fear of answers. Fear of accountability. Fear of reparations.
It is and has always been crucial that people from all backgrounds are able to write their own stories. What is your truth and would you want someone to dictate your story? If the saying, “you won’t know where you’re headed unless you know where you’ve been” is true, then if we opt to mute the voices of the present and those who lived long ago, the residue of the past is bound to be inherited by our future.
Malika's Creative Lab: Sharing lessons in writing and the magic of life.
Malika J. Stevely is an author of historical fiction, African American and women's literature, and essays. She is a graduate of California State University, Fullerton where she earned dual degrees in English and Comparative Literature and Communications. She later worked as a newspaper reporter and in the field of marketing for several years. Mrs. Stevely has published a diverse array of articles and interviews with icons such as Dr. Maya Angelou.
Malika Stevely is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women's National Book Association. She holds an office position with multiple organizations that promote stewardship and leadership.
Mrs. Stevely resides in North Carolina with her husband and children and enjoys dancing and singing show tunes at the top of her lungs. She is the author of Song of Redemption: A Southern Historical Novel Inspired by True Events.