Public Schools

Books Banners Came To A South Dakota City. This Author Fought Back.

  Kristin Tolentino

Author Fights Back Against Books Banners

Books are immersive mediums. Multiple studies have shown that reading fiction makes people better equipped to handle human emotions and navigate relationships. Reading encourages us to understand people and stories dissimilar to ourselves and those in our immediate social circles. Through it, we broaden our worldview and understand what it means to experience the world through another set of circumstances. A story gives us context, and when we know the context, it is easier for us to recognize why people do what they do.

Yet across the U.S., local school districts have banned more than 1,000 books from their high school reading lists. In the case of Rapid City, S.D., author Dave Eggers recently recounted his experience when his book, along with four others, was banned from the district.

By the time came for a school board election, four candidates had risen in the polls thanks to campaigning funded by conservative Christian organizations: the Family Heritage Alliance and the Free Republic Political Action Committee. All four candidates endorsed by the groups – Kate Thomas, Deb Baker, Breanna Funke, and Gabe Doney – took their seats for the next term. None of the four had kids who were attending the local schools.

Natalie Slack, Baker’s opponent and mother of three children in the public school system, credited the polarization in the board election to Donald Trump’s visit to nearby Mount Rushmore in 2020. While this is true, it is critical to remember that Trump did not start this war on the freedom to learn, but he exacerbated feelings of discontent that had existed prior to his rise to social and political power. In giving him this credit, we act as if it is a problem in and of himself as an individual, rather than the institutions and power relationships that had given him a platform to begin with.

Conservative Christian nationalists felt recognized. In light of what appeared to be strides towards inclusivity and equity, they perceived these developments as a threat to the power and privileges they had historically been entitled to. Continued endorsement of his presidency acted as reassurance that a platform founded on fear, division and intolerance was recognized and rewarded. People got bold.

Within the year, the board’s new bloc had put under review and banned five books deemed inappropriate for high school seniors. These books shared certain themes – their content consisted of narratives centered on women and communities of color, LGBTQ representation, coming-of-age stories and anti-fascist critiques of authoritative governments.

Although the board deems these books inappropriate, the controversy is hardly about the material itself. Rather, it is a matter of public school board members, endorsed by conservative, Christian organizations, barring the material at the expense of teachers and students alike.

The board’s initial reasoning was to protect students from sexually explicit content and otherwise controversial views. But amidst the age of the internet where all information is accessible at a moment’s notice, banning books is hardly effective. Again, assuming if these were their intentions, they would be going out of their way to restrict internet access; yet they are not.

All this does is jeopardize students’ opportunities to acclimate themselves with narratives dissimilar to their own.

More is demanded of teachers now than ever. They are expected to mitigate COVID in the classroom, as well as defend themselves and their students from the imminent threat of school shootings – all while trying to create an intellectually engaging curriculum, which is consistently challenged by board members with no direct stakes at the schools. In Rapid City, some teachers decided to move on. For the upcoming school year, there are 88 vacant teaching positions needing to be filled.

At the end of the day, this series of book bans do nothing to protect students. If the board members really wanted to protect students, they might examine the nation’s gun laws or implement mask mandates and vaccination requirements to decrease the risks to immunocompromised students, teachers, and staff. They would provide local resources for families struggling financially because of the pandemic. They would provide teachers with adequate classroom resources so that they aren’t paying for them out-of-pocket. But they don’t.

Education is supposed to challenge you. What good is learning new ideas only to perpetuate those of past generations? We can all agree that education should lead us to a place of equity that has still never fully been realized in this country. These board members are mad because, is spite of what they’ve done, people still find ways to care about others, to recognize them and listen to them.

Banning books is not about protecting students. It is about enshrining a status quo that for generations has empowered white, conservative Christians at the expense of others.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now