On March 7, 2023 the late American writer, Toni Morrison, was posthumously honored by the United States Postal Service with her image on a new Forever Stamp. The honor comes thirty years after Ms. Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and 34 years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel of slavery, Beloved. It also comes three years after lawmakers in the state of Virginia tried to ban Beloved from high school AP English courses.
The battle over Beloved and other works of literature is part of a significant and startling rise in the censorship of literature and other school curriculum that has surged in a number of mostly Republican-dominated states over the past two years. The recent bans on literature and the number of recently passed laws granting governments a greater censorship power coincide with efforts to restrict the teaching of history in the wake of the, almost, hysteria in some quarters over Critical Race Theory. These actions have put many librarians and teachers on a guarded edge.
According to PEN America, a non-profit founded in 1922 and dedicated to free expression in literature across the world, the number of books taken off library shelves has increased dramatically over the past two years, with titles dealing with LGBTQ issues and issues regarding race making up the vast majority of removals. In an extensive analysis on the recent surge of censorship PEN notes in a 2023 article, “Banned in the USA”, a number of troubling findings behind the surge of books being subjected to objection and debate or being outright banned have emerged.
First is the sheer rise in numbers, a total of 2,532 books were banned for the 2021-2022 school year. The number is staggering in comparison to the 273 bans that the American Library Association listed in its 2020 annual report of book bans.
Secondly is the selective targeting. Both PEN and the American Library Association provide detailed figures that show that the vast number of books banned are those dealing with LGBTQ characters and issues (41%) and those with protagonists and prominent secondary characters being people of color (40%). Books containing sexual content, whether about teen pregnancy, sexual assault, or simply stories romantic in nature, follow as the third more targeted category.
A third disturbing trend that PEN notes is that unlike most challenges to school-assigned readings in previous years that grew “organically” from local parents questioning readings assigned to their children, the recent rash of challenges come for members of advocacy groups, statewide or national, that have made banning books “part of their mission”. The sudden rise in attempts to ban books comes with rising political friction. Indeed, several recent school board meetings dealing with censorship have become so vitriolic in nature that security has been called.
This astonishing rise of censorship in schools parallels the 2-year-old attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has been mistakenly viewed by its critics as being taught in K-12 education. Yet the crusade against the CRT has been so great that those opposing it conflate it to any classroom discussion of race and racism, whether current or in America’s past.
Many teachers and librarians are concerned about how recent bans threaten not only our democratic values of freedom of speech and thought, but the negative effects that selective censorship has on today’s children. PEN worries of the “well-being of the students affected by these bans. Children deserve to see themselves in books, and they deserve access to a diversity of stories and perspectives that help them understand and navigate the world around them.”
The recent calls for increased censorship of literature in schools, the defunding of libraries, particularly in small towns, and the rise in government intrusion in academia are certainly cause for alarm, especially in the context of history where nations that banned books have also embraced totalitarianism.
Beloved, a novel about slavery by an African American writer, survived a Fairfax County, Virginia challenge. However the battle over censorship in the nation’s classrooms and libraries continues as governors in Republican-led states, often under the banner of “parents’ rights”, have escalated attacks on curriculum that has resulted in the removal of literature, curriculum, and films that deal with historic issues in regards to race and health issues involving LGBTQ issues.
Supporters of these restrictive bills contend that parents have the right to shield their children from sensitive issues that could be upsetting to them. Added to the political fray, many politicians support bans as a protection from “indoctrination”. Critics contend that these bills and laws, promoted under the banner of “parents’ rights”, have empowered and allowed for a few parents to dictate curriculum for the rest of the community. Such was the case in a St. Petersburg, Florida public school where the Disney film, Ruby Bridges, based on the first African American child to attend an all-white New Orleans school in 1962, was canceled due to one parent’s objection.
To many Americans, this new wave censorship is viewed as an attempt to take the country backwards. Said St. Petersburg’s (Florida) acting mayor, Goliath Davis, ”think about it. A 6-year-old girl (Ruby Bridges) can go to school every day with armed guards, but second graders can’t learn about it? It doesn’t make any sense.”