Ana Maria Cornea / Gavel Media

Banned Book Week: The Struggle to Control How We Learn

As Jewish poet Heinrich Heine once stated, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” While in this country we are not physically amassing piles of books and setting them aflame, many argue that with the acceleration of mass-banning books from public schools, we are just one step closer to that reality.

Banned Books Week is an international event held to encourage readers to promote their personal intellectual freedom by exploring literary works that have been persistently and recently brought under fire by parents, local school boards, and state governments. In addition, it’s been established to motivate the public to investigate who in particular is behind this massive threat against what literature represents as the most original form of developing an open mind. Through reading, you expose yourself to a variety of points of view, to stories unlike yours, and to messages from people that may otherwise not reach the masses.

Of the most challenged books in 2021, the topics most feared by protestors dealt with LGBTQIA+ content, issues regarding racism and racially charged violence, and gender-based violence and sexual harassment. Why are people so afraid of engaging in conversations about these topics?  Dating back to Nazi Germany in 1933, where books from now-revered figures like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, and Tolkien were set on fire for representing ideologies opposed to Nazism, book banning is a historical practice exercised by many who proclaim “traditional” mindsets and push conservative values.

The pseudo-activism employed by people on the Right is the most vitriolic fuel for the American savior complex: the belief in American exceptionalism and its ability to “fix” and “change” things about people's identities that are, for the most part, innate to their humanity and intrinsic to their background.

In Mississippi, a city mayor withheld over $100K in funding for his county’s main public library system on the basis of his own religious beliefs, pushing for the eradication of all LGBTQIA+ content from the bookshelves before the money was to be granted. States across the country, including Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, and Florida, have passed similar legislation, geared towards banning books spanning a range of topics on the grounds that these works promote “inappropriate” and “divisive concepts.” But what is inappropriate or divisive about a person’s identity? 

In the 2021-2022 school year alone, more than 1,600 books were banned across the country by right-wing groups pushing for the censorship of minority voices and communities. Ashley Hope Pérez, author of “Out of Darkness,” a YA historical fiction novel about a teenage Mexican-American girl and a teenage African-American boy facing racism, classism, and segregation in 1930s Texas, dealt with controversy following the banning of her book in school districts across her home state. Her 2015 novel was nominated for and won various awards, most notably the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and recognition from The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents. However, by 2021, her work had become the fourth most challenged book in the United States.

How can we expect to facilitate the growth of our future generations without introducing them to the importance of diversity through literature? In school districts across Pennsylvania, another middle-grade book series, Girls Who Code, has fallen victim to several bans. The author of this series responded to these bans, stating that this scheme of restrictive literacy and intellectual exploration “is about controlling women,” adding that “it starts with controlling our girls and what info they have access to.” Dr. Tarika Barrett, CEO of the nonprofit Girls Who Code, called the banning of nearly 1,700 books in 2022 alone “a blow to any efforts to build a diverse, more equitable world.”

The group that has been repetitively accused of leading the nation-wide ban of “controversial” (see: diverse) books is activist group Moms for Liberty who are “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents.” On the website for Moms for Liberty, the founders state that they seek to “promote liberty,” “oppose government overreach,” and “engage on key issues” in order to safeguard the “freedom and future of all children.” Moms for Liberty has become nationally recognized for their efforts to “reshape education” in the public school system; their idea of remodeling, however, is to manufacture a structure that has no room for marginalized voices.

It is customary conservative criticism that explains these one-sided attacks on academic freedom and exploration of critical thought. How are we able to generate conversations about “key issues” if the works that discuss these topics are ripped from bookshelves? By erasing the voices and stories of individuals who represent marginalized communities, we are tunneling people, especially young children in school systems – their primary environment of learning about life outside of the bounds of their own home – into a world of autocracy. During weeks like this, and frankly all the time, it is essential to emphasize the need to protect intellectual freedom; it is critical that we pinpoint the few who fear stories of expression and liberation and bar them from reaching the masses.

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