Opinion: Book bans target nonwhite authors and characters

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The campaign to portray public education as a liberal training camp has conjured a new and unlikely villain — school librarians. No longer are librarians stereotyped as buttoned-up matrons shushing children in school media centers, but as helmeted Valkyrie warriors leading kids into the nation’s culture wars.

Parents are packing school board meetings in Georgia and other states to demand school librarians and teachers be censured for their book choices and what they see as a social justice agenda. This is not an individual parent pulling a book out of a kid’s backpack and raising a question about it, but a wholesale copying and pasting of lists containing hundreds of titles in an orchestrated campaign to intimidate schools to yank books. In April, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that expedites the process for removing books and other content seen as “harmful to minors” from school libraries.

A new report finds that 140 school districts in 32 states issued more than 2,500 book bans during the 2021-22 school year. Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools, released recently by PEN America, says most books being pulled from library shelves feature protagonists of color or characters who are LGBTQ and deal with themes of race and racism.

“When you hear right-wing groups use terms like pornographic, inappropriate, controversial, divisive, by and large they’re using these terms as ways to negatively characterize books that are by and about nonwhite or non-dominant people or books that address sexual assault or police or racialized violence,” said Ashley Hope Pérez, whose historical young adult novel “Out of Darkness” was the fourth-most banned and challenged book last year, according to the American Library Association.

The book — which examines the fraught romance between a Mexican American teen and a Black teen amid the backdrop of the 1937 New London school explosion that killed about 300 people — came out seven years ago to positive reviews. “Her layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama that goes down like it should, with pain and fascination, like a mix of sugary medicine and artisanal moonshine,” wrote a New York Times reviewer in 2015.

The reviewer didn’t minimize the book’s frank depiction of the dual horrors of racism and sexism, noting, “I actually had to close the book at one point to seek respite with Facebook. And puppies.”

At school board meetings, aghast mothers are reading a brief explicit passage in which white boys crudely discuss sexually assaulting the Mexican American teen, which Pérez wrote to show the sexual objectification and racialization the character endured.

A former high school teacher in Texas and now an Ohio State University professor, Pérez maintains book bans are insidious. “Librarians are now worried about every purchase they make ... they are worried about controversy, about personal attacks, about losing their jobs. The book banners want to eliminate the need for formal challenges by activating this self-censorship by librarians and teachers,” said Pérez at a recent PEN America media panel on book bans.

Children’s book author and founder of a publishing company that focuses on Black history and culture, Cheryl Willis Hudson saw her charming and sweet children’s tale, “My Friend Maya Loves to Dance,” challenged last year in a Pennsylvania school district. An anthology of inspirational essays for children of color that she co-edited, “We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices,” has also come under fire by white parents in several districts as racially divisive.

“When I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I couldn’t go to the library; libraries were not opened to Black people in our Virginia town. I didn’t get a library card until I was 13 years old,” said Hudson, recalling the laws enacted between 1740 and 1834 that made it a crime in the South to teach enslaved people to read or write.

“A significant number of people want to take us backward. They want to establish a bygone era where nonwhite people were marginalized, and stories were told through the perspective of the ruling class,” said Hudson, also part of the PEN America panel.

Pérez calls the book ban campaign a pretext to a larger goal.

“It is a proxy war on students who share the marginalized identities of the characters in the books under attack,” said Pérez. “When you ban a book with a character who looks like kids in the school or who shares gender or sexual identity with kids in the school, it sends the message that these stories about people like them are not fit for school. It implies their very existence and presence are somehow controversial — just like the presence of the books that are being branded unfit for schools.”