Virginia held statewide elections earlier this month, with Republican Glenn Youngkin defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a gubernatorial race. Youngkin triumphed in part by mobilizing conservative evangelicals and stressing “culture war” issues related to public education – specifically attacking certain books used in the public schools.
In the closing days of the race, Youngkin ran an ad featuring a woman whose son said he had nightmares after being assigned to read author Toni Morrison’s book Beloved, a harrowing look at chattel slavery in the South. Youngkin also attacked critical race theory, which isn’t taught in Virginia’s public schools but has become a target nonetheless.
National Republican Party leaders took note of Youngkin’s win, and as a result, many political analysts expect them to emphasize “education” issues leading up to the 2022 midterm elections. Of course, they won’t be emphasizing education in the sense of providing more funding or looking for ways to make our public schools better. Instead, their emphasis will be on banning books.
Youngkin’s rhetoric is catching on. In Spotsylvania County, the school board has voted unanimously to remove all books that contain “sexually explicit” materials from school libraries.
This purposefully vague term is usually interpreted to mean any book dealing with LGBTQ themes or any gritty depiction of modern life, and indeed, the book that set board members off, 33 Snowfish, deals with a band of homeless teenagers trying to escape homes filled with violence, neglect and abuse. Recommended for older teens, the volume was named a “Best Book for Young Adults” in 2004 by the American Library Association.
Two board members in Spotsylvania, Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, said during a public meeting that they don’t just want books like this banned – they literally want to see them set on fire.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said. Twigg added that he’d like to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”
For good measure, Abuismail charged that education officials “would rather have our kids reading gay pornography than about Christ.”
In Goddard, Kan., education officials removed 29 books from circulation after a parent complaint about language in one of them. Among the titles pulled were several novels, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. “Fences,” an award-winning play by August Wilson, was also pulled, as was They Called Themselves the K.K.K, a nonfiction history of the racist hate group by Susan Campbell Bertoletti.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has issued an executive order requiring education officials to ferret out books containing “obscene content.” State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Tarrant County) would go further and pull any book that is judged to “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.” His hit list includes 850 books.
This is an old, sad story in America. People who are afraid of certain ideas – or, more accurately, the thinking that exposure to such ideas can spark – will try to squelch them. The first step is to demonize books by labeling them “obscene,” “filthy,” “anti-Christian,” etc. The second step is a bonfire, metaphorical or literal. The final step is ignorance.
People who do these things often claim that they are protecting young people. They’re not. The only thing they are protecting is a student’s “right” to remain unchallenged, uninspired and, ultimately, uneducated.
Update: The board's vote to censor the books received national attention and was widely criticized. A week later, county residents packed a school board meeting to express their concerns. The board voted 5-2 to rescind the call to remove the books. Abusimail and Twigg were the only dissenters.