As long as there have been books, there have been efforts to ban them – from objections based on immoral content raised by religious groups during the colonial America era to the 1800s when states in the South sought to outlaw books with anti-slavery themes like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
In fact, according to Claire Parfait, an American History professor, in an article published by National Geographic, not only was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, publicly burned, but one free Black minister was sentenced to 10 years in prison for owning a copy of the book.
As the current debate over the legality of banning books continues to dominate the news, some legal experts contend that book bans violate the First Amendment as they deprive both children and students the right to receive information and ideas.
The numbers tell the story as the 2021-2022 school year had a record number of book ban requests, with the current school year on track to break the previous year’s record.
The American Library Association (ALA) and Pen America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free speech, both assert that the majority of books being banned come from the young adult category with themes that include LGBTQ+ issues (674 titles), characters of color (659 titles) or race or racism (338 titles).
According to the ALA, 2022 recorded the highest number of complaints (1,651) – that is attempts to ban, challenge or restrict access to different book titles in the U.S. – since the group first began documenting book challenges more than 20 years ago.
In New Jersey, recent efforts to ban books in Wayne, Ramsey, Westfield and the North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District focused on the removal of five LGBTQ+-themed books including George M. Johnson’s award-winning “All Boys Aren’t Blue” – a book written by a Black author about a Black boy coming to terms with his sexual orientation.
K.C. Boyd, Washington, D.C.’s 2022 Librarian of the Year, in an interview with the Washington Informer, described the controversial issue of banning books from the perspective of her Ward 6 school – a perspective which stood in stark contrast to the experiences of her colleagues in more conservative strongholds like South Carolina and Louisiana.
“When you get into the business of telling a child they can’t read a particular book, you’re focusing on the negative and blocking them from accessing books that affirm their culture, race and identity,” Boyd said.
“It hurts Black, brown and LBGTQ kids, more than their counterparts. School librarians have to be more on the political side and conscious about what’s going on in society,” said Boyd, while adding, “book banning is a serious issue and censorship.”
A disturbing trend of book bans escalates
In just the first four months of 2022, Texas led the nation with 700 books banned, followed by Pennsylvania with 400 and Florida with nearly 300. Other states topping the list of banned books included Oklahoma, Kansas, and Indiana. Those numbers have remained on track for 2023, with Texas districts still at the top of the heap with the most instances of book bans at 438, followed by 357 bans in Florida, 315 bans in Missouri, and over 100 bans in both Utah and South Carolina.
In fact, the fury over and support of book banning has only escalated in 2023, dominating the discussions of and platforms for a growing number of political hopefuls, particularly Republicans – the majority of whom have used this divisive issue as a rallying cry in their quest for positions that range from local school board officials to the White House.
As we look to the 2024 presidential election, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican nominee, has emerged as one of America’s most vocal advocates for book banning. Given the laws he has already successfully pushed through the Florida legislature, DeSantis claims he only wants to ensure that parents have control over their children’s education – a claim that has been refuted by Floridians and many Democrats as misleading, if not totally false.
Can you imagine books like Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” or Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” – all books written by Black authors – being removed from classrooms and libraries because of their alleged “questionable content?”
Well, it’s happening. The question remains, “where will it stop?”
More than 60 years ago, Ray Bradbury, in his acclaimed novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” imagined a bleak, dystopian future in which the job of a fireman was to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they were hidden. In that world, ideas as presented in books and how they influenced society’s minds, were considered dangerous. Safety and national security rested in what people were told and taught, couched within the mindless chatter of television.
At the time of its publication in the 1950s, Bradbury’s prose was considered a science fiction masterpiece. However, it now seems that he may have been prophetic in his musings. Maybe he missed the mark in suggesting that television and the contents of its programs would become the “supreme educator.” But if one were to replace TV with today’s dominant forms of communication, the internet or social media . . . you get the point.
Banning books, while a hot topic today, is nothing new. It’s been around for centuries as those in power have attempted to legislate what should and should not be read. But in the past few years, there has been a disproportionate escalation of efforts to ban books by LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color whose stories address perspectives and touch on life which counter that of white, straight, middle-class Americans.
But the real losers may well be our children – youth who, if this firestorm continues, will be relegated to receiving a watered-down, sanitized version of history – a history that does not honestly or accurately reflect the many layers of today’s society.
A history that is HIS-story but not OURS.