Currently, all over the United States, there is a coordinated effort — or, rather, a coordinated attack — on books, specifically, books written by people of color. Efforts in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other states have seen literature that centers on marginalized stories challenged, and in many cases, taken off the shelves. According to the American Library Association, last year saw the highest number of attempted book bans since the organization began collecting data, and books written by Black authors were among the most challenged. With book banning happening across the US, whose stories get told?
America’s Tradition of Censorship
Book banning has a storied history in America, dating back to the 17th century when Puritans tried to remove books that they deemed “blasphemous.” It seems unfathomable that in a country allegedly founded on the freedom of expression, there is such a tradition of routine and aggressive censorship.
That censorship, as it pertains to books, usually takes the form of two approaches: bans and challenges. A challenge is a documented attempt to remove a certain book from a school or library, and a ban is when those efforts are ultimately successful.
The American Library Association (ALA), has been collecting and publishing data on book bans for the last few decades, and 2021 set a new record. According to CNN, “last year, there were 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services. That’s up from 156 and 377 challenges reported to the ALA in 2020 and 2019, respectively.” Between July 2021 and March of this year, PEN America found that more than 1,500 book bans had taken place in school districts.
While those numbers are staggering, the actual number may be much higher, as ALA research from surveys suggests that around 90% of attempted book bans are not actually reported and receive no significant media attention.
The Scope of Book Bans Today
So, who are the people attempting to ban these books? And what reasons do they cite? The challenges often come from parents who say they are concerned about the material. What’s more troubling is that it’s become a topic of political pander as much of the recent public conversation has come from potential and elected officials. Even the police are getting involved in challenging books that they deem are “anti-police.”
Conservative politicians are using books as lightning rods. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin complained about lauded novelist Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel that tells the story of a formerly enslaved woman living in Ohio. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. In Texas, state Rep. Matt Krause published a long list of books (about 850) that he claimed made students “feel discomfort” about sexuality and race. A San Antonio school district removed nearly half of the books Krause called out.
Many of these challenges to books come in tandem with legislative efforts to restrict and control class curriculums around race and gender, including the teaching of critical race theory (Texas has gone as far as to cite Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project). According to the Legal Defense Fund, “over the past few months, Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic concept taught mostly to law students, has been catapulted into the public dialogue, becoming the catch-all phrase of those seeking to censor educational discussions dealing with race or racial justice in American schools.”
Who Suffers as a Result of These Bans?
These efforts to curtail free speech will restrict students from being able to discuss and ask questions about racism and white supremacy in the classroom. For teachers, it will make it difficult or even illegal to guide students through these difficult realities and discuss current events. And if a student wants to go to their school or public library to try to learn about these matters for themselves, the books they need might not even be on the shelves. Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give is an exceptional young adult novel that deals with police violence. It is also one of the most challenged and banned books.
It is already difficult for minority populations in the U.S. to see themselves in literature, and these challenges make it that much harder. In the PEN America report, 41% of the banned books had main or prominent characters that were people of color, and 22% of the books addressed race. Removing Black authors and Black literature from the conversation has long been an issue, and while the guise of these efforts is to somehow protect children, it is exactly those children who will suffer. Many children, particularly children whose families might not be able to buy them books, rely on their school and public libraries for access to stories they can learn from and relate to. Erasing Black books erases history, it erases lived experiences, and it erases the opportunity to tell both sides of the American experience. These challenges come from right-wing politicians, parents, and activists — the ALA reports that only 1% of challenges come from students.
Take Proactive Steps to Protect Access to Books
Despite efforts to restrict access to important, mind-opening books, these challenges may be having the opposite of their intended effect. Banned-book clubs are popping up, and youth are interested in understanding what the hype is about, wanting to read the stories for themselves. The good news is some libraries and schools are putting their foot down. To promote unrestricted access to literature, the New York Public Library allows students from all over the country free access to commonly banned books through their app.
In a time when it seems like there is an unrelenting effort on our freedoms and civil liberties, it’s important we stay vigilant to promote the stories and experiences of Black, Brown and Indigenous voices. Representation in literature matters. We have a right to tell these stories, and children have a right to read them.
About the Author
AREVA MARTIN is one of the nation’s leading voices for Autism advocacy. An award-winning attorney, advocate, legal and social issues commentator, talk show host, and producer, she is a CNN/HLN legal analyst, former co-host of The Doctors and Face the Truth, and a regular contributor on Good Morning America, ABC World News Tonight, and Dr. Phil. She currently hosts The Special Report with Areva Martin and is the Host and producer of a weekend radio talk show, Areva Martin Out Loud, on KBLA AM 1580. A Harvard Law School graduate, Martin founded Martin & Martin, LLP, a Los Angeles–based civil rights firm, and is the CEO of Butterflly Health, Inc., a mental health technology company.