Book Banning Past and Present

Against the Current, No. 218, May/June 2022

Harvey J. Graff

TODAY’S CAMPAIGNS BY the radical right wing to ban books in schools across the United States are unprecedented, unconstitutional, inhumane, nationally organized, and well-funded.

Unlike their predecessors, they are blatantly ignorant of the very texts they wish to erase and cancel — sometimes burn. These campaigns also have no understanding of “The People,” “The American Public” and “Public Interest;” children’s development, paths of maturation and the roles of reading; and the U.S. and state constitutions, or in example after example, the formal guidelines of school and local libraries.

Whether organized and provided with written scripts or acting in isolation in response to viral social media posts, book banners are a small, undemocratic minority of Americans. They speak for very few, but loudly because of their dishonest manipulation of racist, xenophobic, sexist, transphobic and white supremacist fears and grievances.

Sadly, one of them may speak more loudly at school board meetings than twenty calm, informed voices.

Those who challenge books do not always have children attending the schools whose libraries they ransack. One of Texas’ loudest, most dishonest banners proclaims her commitment to “protect her children.” But her two children graduated from high school before her campaign and attended school while the challenged books sat unquestioned on library shelves.

Among the dishonest tactics of the banners: Whether before a library committee, school board meeting, media or social media, or letter to the editor or opinion essay, they begin by referring to the slippery slope of “age appropriateness” of a text. Within moments, without acknowledgement, they shift to “appropriateness” without qualification.

From a deeply rooted fear of loss of power, these banners assault the human dignity, human rights, and legal rights especially of the young. These forces of reaction and resentment grow alongside the movement toward racial equality and integration for three-quarters of a century.

I write as a historian of literacy — reading and writing. I write from almost a half-century’s classroom teaching and close relationships with young people and their intellectual, social, cultural, and emotional development as they become young citizens.

Power and Intimidation

What we see across the United States is not spontaneous parental concern. Book banning is driven by social media, conservative websites, and well-funded, right-wing political organizations that direct followers to target specific books. These organizations provide scripts for activists to follow; they remain ignorant of the content of the very books they seek to ban.

These actions are prompted and promoted by right-wing (not conservative) organizations like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education. Attacking books that school professionals carefully evaluate is deeply hypocritical. The same people who assert that teens can handle guns and have babies also claim that teens must be protected from award-winning books carefully written for young people.

The targeted books are visual and material symbols, proxies in a “culture war” where the real objective is obtaining greater political power and asserting the supremacy of a specific world view that is held by a small minority. Denying access to books destroys children’s basic right to knowledge, growth and maturation.

Banning books is inseparably interrelated to the many other bans that today’s anti-democratic and unconstitutional right-wing ideologues promote: attacks on abortion rights and women’s rights to control their own bodies; obstruction of LGBTQ and same-sex couples’ rights; abridgment of First Amendment rights to free speech; refusal of transgender athletes’ rights to participate in school sports and access gender-affirming medical care; and egregious restriction of voting rights.

Then and Now

Today’s attacks are unprecedented historically in magnitude and ferocity. Efforts to restrict, remove, ban and destroy materials, first written and then printed, aren’t new. There have been destructive but failing efforts before and since the advent of modern printing (movable typography). They all failed.

In banning campaigns, including the 15th- and 16th-century Roman Catholic Counter Reformation against both emerging Protestants and radical Catholics, the papal authorities and their allies read the offending texts before attempting to ban or occasionally burn them.

Even the late-19th-century book banners, led by U.S. Postmaster General Anthony Comstock and his New York City-based Committee for the Suppression of Vice, read the written and printed material they sought to restrict. Calling it pornography, their primary targets were instructions and supplies for birth control.

Those now-humorous-in-hindsight, limited campaigns to “Ban (Books) in Boston” pale in comparison with today. Aspirational banners in the past actually read the books and proudly used their literacy. They did not obsess over the reading audience — especially about children — and targeted white male authors and characters much more often than women and Blacks.

Their targets included the now-classic novels Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Call of the Wild, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, as well as The Color Purple, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Beloved, authored by Black women.

Current bans extend historical assaults on the rights of marginalized people. In the United States, periodic efforts broke out to ban books and means of access to them, including access to reading itself.

Sometimes centered on gender, more often on race, the attacks unfolded always in the context of politics, religion, society, culture and economics.

White girls and women gained almost equal access to elementary schooling by the mid-19th century, and secondary education more slowly. Women’s education was long justified in terms of their roles as future mothers and educators — not restrictors or censors — of their children.

Most egregious and long-lasting — and threatened again today — is both access to literacy and the right to read of minority populations: Black, brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ and differently abled. Basic literacy was long withheld, often by law and force, from enslaved people, free Blacks, and Native Peoples.

That is why The Narrative of Frederick Douglass is among the most powerful and triumphant testimonies in American literary history. It is on many lists of targeted titles.

Resisting the New Illiteracy

Participating in what I consider the “new illiteracy,” the book banners refuse to read the books they wish to remove.

Removing stories that reveal painful aspects of human experience does not, cannot, protect the young. That is a dangerous myth. Instead, removals impoverish learners by depriving them of a socially and culturally safe way to examine, learn from, and mature from confronting difficult issues.

Reading and learning are gateways for engaging young minds and supporting their understanding of diverse and conflicting human experiences. Generations of young people and adults confirm this basic phenomenon.

School boards at all levels, and state leadership must follow established, constitutional policies. They must discuss with parents the diversity of experiences that students bring to schools and the ways in which library materials meet the needs of a wide range of young people, not just those who share the identities, experiences and values of a particular group of parents.

They must resist pressure to allow the demand for “parental freedom” that is actually an attempt to trample the rights of other parents with differing views and of the learners whom schools are obligated to put first.

To contradict these accepted intellectual and community standards elevates extreme and narrow views of a small minority over the professional discretion and training of librarians and educators who focus on meeting the needs of the young.

Ceding control of the educational process to individuals unwilling even to read the books they challenge amounts to a public endorsement of the disenfranchisement of marginalized students, their families and communities — and an unconscionable disservice to the interests of the public.

No Book “Appropriate” for All

Among the greatest threats posed by attacks on youth’s access to books is their deeply chilling effect. Will a librarian in a community beleaguered by book banners still order the next teen sexual health guide or other books that might be “controversial” to a few fringe parents, even when they are highly recommended by library professional guides and other experts?

Reports of “soft censorship” multiply; they are as harmful as public attacks on literature. When book bans succeed, officially and unofficially, young learners lose the fundamental literature and information they need to become thoughtful readers and capable citizens.

Today’s book banners claim to be worried that “children” will be harmed by difficult themes. Trauma experts, survivors, and the young themselves refute these claims.

Research, therapists and personal testimony confirm that literature provides spaces for readers to recognize and name injuries that they otherwise struggle to identify in their own lives. Most of the condemned books focus on young people struggling for dignity and joy amid the racism and sexism that surround the characters.

In opposition to constitutional standards, banners object to books on the basis of their personal values; for example, insisting that a book like I Am Jazz be removed because it suggests that a child can be born with a girl’s brain and a boy’s body. In contrast, transgender activists point to the scientific consensus behind that perspective.

High school students are not “children.” They are maturing young adults, sometimes only months away from military service, fulltime jobs or job training, relationships with people from other communities, and university classes.

Supreme Court cases affirm that their First Amendment rights to open access to information, books, and other resources must not be restricted or removed on the basis of any one set of values or viewpoints. The unconstitutional banners do not know, and their national sponsors reject, this established standard.

Bans also redirect students away from materials that educational professionals have approved, just as content that is not evaluated remains instantly available through the internet. These facts amount to direct assaults on children and youth legally unable to defend themselves. Surprisingly, or not, banners ignore young people’s instantaneous access to unchecked content via smart phones and tablets.

Do They Really Care?

Perhaps in their self-justifying and fraudulent slogans about “parental rights” and “protecting children” by severely limiting their ability to grow up, learn, and mature, banners don’t care about children. Their lies and distortions strongly suggest exactly that.

Talented authors write books that address a wide range of youth experiences allowing the young to see themselves, and others, in their full humanity. We need more of these books widely available. Most parents, and almost all teachers, librarians, child development experts, counselors and therapists confirm this understanding.

Those of us who genuinely care about children focus on real harm and injustice — ignorance, unequal education, racism, child abuse, sexual assault, gender discrimination and homophobia — that are dangers in young people’s lives. We must also constructively help parents talk to their children about the ubiquitous portal to deeply objectionable material: the smart phone.

May-June 2022, ATC 218

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