October 2022 Church & State Magazine

Lost Horizons: In The Current Wave Of Book Banning, Nothing Less Than The Ability To Know Ourselves Is At Stake

  Kristin Tolentino

Across the country, students have lost access to more than 1,500 books in the past year. While book censorship is nothing new in the United States, in recent years of increased political polarization and the ongoing COVID pandemic, many parents and politicians alike have taken issue with what type of literature is available at their public libraries and schools.

Nationwide, there have been 681 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,651 different book titles between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, reports the American Library Association (ALA).

Some of these titles include:

  • Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe: An illustrated memoir that tells of Kobabe’s journey of self-discovery and eventual coming out as gender non-binary.
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Focusing on a young Black girl, Pec­ola Breedlove, this novel is a painful, yet critical, story that deals with internalized racism, trauma and oppression.
  • Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison: This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel tells the story of Mike Munoz, a young Latino boy, and his fight against racism and classism as well as his coming to terms with his sexuality.

The reasons for the surge of censorship are plentiful. It’s a Molotov cocktail of political and social polarity, the rise of right-wing internet platforms and pro-censorship groups like the ironically named Moms for Liberty and quarantine-induced idleness that gives people the time and energy to challenge what they would have normally paid little attention to. According to the ALA, most of the people who challenge books are parents, followed by politicians and (last but not least) conservative organizations.

Although there are standard expectations when challenging a book – for example, making sure they are read in full, not just cherry-picking excerpts without context – there is no national policy for dealing with book challenges in public schools. It’s up to local districts to determine whether or not to ban any given book.

Book banning has been with us since the time of our founding. Third President Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), for example, condemned an effort to prosecute a bookseller on the grounds that a title he’d sold was “blasphemous” in 1814, and during the Comstock era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many books we now acknowledge as classics were banned in several cities.

But the recent attempts we’re seeing are unprecedented in scale and strategy, and they’re affecting communities in every corner of the country.

Religious conservatives were emboldened by the narrowly elected Glenn Youngkin (R) as Virginia governor in 2021, who rode into office in part by attacking “critical race theory” in public schools (even though it was not being taught) and singling out books that allegedly made white students feel guilty about their race. (One example: The mother of an eighth grader complained that her son was frightened by the searing descriptions of the brutality of chattel slavery in Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved.)

Current attacks are often emboldened by right-wing internet websites, and they don’t stop at just blocking accessibility within public libraries. Sometimes they try to shut down libraries entirely. In an incident from Jamestown Township, Mich., which captured national head­lines, residents voted to deny a modest tax boost for the public library, essentially cutting off 85% of its funding. Voters in the town had been subjected to a relentless campaign by a far-right group that accused the library of “grooming” children (i.e., telling them it’s OK to be gay) and stocking pornography. In fact, only a tiny percentage of the library’s collection dealt with LGBTQ themes.

Public school libraries are also under assault, and efforts are being made to remove certain books from in-school libraries or from school curricula.

Since January 2021, 33 different states have introduced 122 educational gag-order bills to censor teachers, according to the anti-censorship group PEN America.

Some go so far as to threaten to criminally prosecute library staff and/or teachers. A proposed Oklahoma law would have barred public school instructors from teaching anything that offends a student’s religion. If found guilty of violating the standard, the teacher would have been fined $10,000 per incident, and using “crowd funding” to pay the fine would result in automatic termination.

Books are challenged because they are deemed sexually explicit, controversial or age-inappropriate for young readers. Most – if not all – of the books that were challenged discussed hard-hitting material like sexuality, race, sex education, classism and anti-fascism. Increasingly, books are being challenged even for presenting factual material that most far-right extremists would rather not be taught, such as the legacy of institutionalized racism in America.

When these stories are censored, it reminds us of how persistent ignorance can become. Why challenge what is when it has acted in your favor for so long?

Book banning has arguably far greater sociocultural implications for young readers especially. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop published an essay in which she coined the phrase “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor to explain how important it is that children have access to books that reflect the multicultural nature of the world.

Books presenting non-traditional, non-Western-based narratives are most necessary in the places they are banned. Book bans most often occur within small, predominantly white and heterosexual, suburban neighborhoods.

In such homogenous communities, students may have few real-world opportunities to engage with issues of race, class, gender and sexuality. Literature reminds us of how diverse the human experience is beyond our personal experiences. Through literature, we come to understand not only how we fit into the world, but also our connection and interaction with different people based on this knowledge.

Conversely, if members of the dom­inant social group read only stories that mirror their own experiences, they are led to believe that their perspectives are all that matter, and so should prevail over others.

Literature reflects the human experience. Subconsciously or intentionally, we look for stories that mirror our experiences, that would tend to affirm those of readers within the dominant group. In homogenous communities especially, this is literature’s most critical and motivational purpose for minority readers.

For minority children and young adults, being able to see themselves positively represented in literature assures that society values them – that although they face ridicule and oppression in their narrow neighborhoods, they are far more valuable than how their community treats them.

Yet when they cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read – or when the images they do see are distorted, laughable or vilified – it sends the message that they are not valued by the dominant majority in their community.

Censorship is society’s way of saying what ideas are, or are not, permissible.  In the case of religious zealots and Christian nationalists, it is a coercive way to remind margin­alized people that they are a threat. It is easier to persecute books rather than the people whose lives mirror their stories. Material within the banned books forces people to rethink their place in the world; to recognize how they may benefit at the expense of purposefully forgotten and vulnerable people.

In having access to books, we allow ourselves to explore the world beyond our preconceived notions. More so in communities where controversial books are entirely necessary, education facilitates change. We reform ourselves story by story to understand how the world is changed, perceived and experienced by other people. We do not live in isolation in our own beliefs. Our stories intertwine and inevitably affect one another.

The United States has yet to realize what it means to value diversity and inclusion. Bigotry, racism, homophobia and general fear and apathy toward “the other” (“us” vs. “them”) is not an exception, but the norm that marginalized Americans have been forced to navigate throughout their lives.

Challenging orthodoxy is never easy. But when we examine our history, it is dedication, advocacy and an unwillingness to remain complicit in the face of adversity that has brought us to where we are today. When we are fooled into believing that this current state is all we can achieve, we must remember that we are not exempt from patterns of change.

We are the future, and in time we will be someone’s history.

Kristin Tolentino is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronx­ville, N.Y., studying anthropology, philosophy and geography. She interned in Americans United’s Communications Department this summer.

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