Advocates launched Banned Books Week in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in libraries, bookstores, and schools. These days, it’s got its work cut out for it.
Actor LeVar Burton, honorary chair for Banned Books Week 2023, spoke against the crusade of silencing the voice of writers at an October 4 online forum, arguing that “books create empathy” by providing alternative perspectives.
“There was a time that I could not see a society where we were banning books. But I’m living in that future projection now. And I find that really disheartening,” said Burton, a host of “Reading Rainbow.” “Me reading what I choose to read in no way infringes upon your rights or your pursuit of happiness.”
Book-banning organizations and anti-literature radicals have stepped up efforts to ban books and squash “wokeism,” non-white perspectives and the LGBTQ+ presence from libraries and schools since the 1988 ban of “The Lorax,” but Florida’s education department recently stepped up efforts with a ban on more than 300 titles from school shelves.
Censorship forces are hiding alternative lifestyles and whitewashing U.S. history nationwide, but “anti-woke” legislation is pushing things along in Florida, Texas and Mississippi. Black Girl Times covered one Mississippi book ban courtesy of House Judiciary B Committee Chairman Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth. Bain’s ban removed popular online book services from libraries for readers under the age of 18, but he still lost his Republican primary after failing to stagger far enough into radicalism.
Bain’s ban included a prohibition on digital library books that state law defines as including “sexually oriented” depictions, including of “homosexuality” and “lesbianism.” Mississippi library staff—already underfunded and under staffed—can’t preview every item within the platforms, so they instead shut down youth access altogether. Mississippi’s First Regional Library announced its plan to pull platform availability earlier this year.
Schools and places of education are likewise hogtied. Mississippi’s own celebrated author Angie Thomas discovered her book “The Hate U Give” banned in Madison County schools, despite Madison County being almost 40% Black. Lindsey Beckham, who co-founded Madison County chapter of book-banning organization Moms for Liberty labored to remove the book, claiming “’The Hate U Give’ feature[d] a lot of violence.”
Moms for Liberty is a foot soldier in nationwide bans. Their website, BookLooks.org, makes banning easy by allowing bigots and “concerned moms” to submit bans to library commissions and school boards without having to injure themselves with undue reading. The website works through curated “summaries.” Its “Summary of Concerns” regarding the children’s picture book, ‘the Harvey Milk story’, for example, accuses the book of containing “alternate sexualities; hate involving homophobia; controversial social commentary; and mild violence.” BookLooks.org cites examples of statements like “Gay people had no legal protection, and they risked losing their jobs and homes. They were harassed by the police,” and “They thought it was impossible for an openly gay candidate to get elected, because non(sic) had before.”
It similarly accuses Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” of containing “inflammatory racial commentary; excessive/frequent profanity; and inexplicit sexual activities.” The website reduces Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ a powerful account of the life of an enslaved woman, to “sexual activities; bestiality commentary; violence; racial commentary; profanity; and derogatory terms.” Other books get a mark simply for “controversial racial commentary,” despite race being the driving force for much U.S. history.
History, consequently, stands the most to lose, says Deborah Menkart, co-director of the Zinn Education Project.
“We’re concerned because (minorities and LGBTQ+) people are being diminished, … but if we continue this trend, we’ll have young people who are less likely to play an active role in their communities and be informed voters. What’s at stake is an informed democracy,” Menkart told BGX. “Learning to think critically, learning from more than one source, to think about what you know and holding that against what you’re being told, all of that ability to think critically, to demand and ask for more sources of information. All of that is diminished if young people are not able to get a complete, honest history, or encouraged to ask questions in the classroom.”
Menkart added book banners don’t want young people taking an interest in government and pointed to new Texas legislation prohibiting one of the traditional staples of the civics classroom: the “write your legislator” assignment.
In addition to preventing teachers from encouraging meaningful discussion on history, Texas law now openly discourages teachers from requiring or awarding course credit for a student's work or affiliation with a social justice association, or “directly or indirectly attempting to influence social or public policy or the outcome of legislation.” Texas legislators are apparently not interested in your letters or opinion.
The Zinn Education Project, which consists of two nonprofits that have been compiling pivotal nuggets of U.S. history for more than three decades, says book bans and anti-education laws are “united” in a political goal of robbing children “of access to a usable past, an account of history that helps them fully see and understand their present.”
The Florida Department of Education, for example, approved a rule demanding teachers “not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”
That’s not history, says The Zinn Education Project, that’s a fairy tale that “distorts both past and present.” The project now offers a “truthful curriculum” with a broader investigation of the past, emphasizing how racism and inequality formed the nation’s foundation. Their #TeachTruth Syllabus includes some of the project’s own exhaustive research on fiery topics such as “Who Fought to End Slavery,” an exploration on colonial laws U.S. legislators enacted to create and maintain racial division and inequality, and how spurious red lining in real estate helped create white wealth while leaving whole Black generations in poverty.
The project also explores techniques concerned youth can use in Teaching Climate Disobedience and the Necessity Defense.
“Disobedience” and the notion of opposition were repeat terms LeVar Burton also revisited throughout his October interview.
“I have three words for you all,” he told listeners. “Resist, resist, resist.”