Banning to burning: book bans reveal a darker agenda

According to the American Library Association, these are the top 10 most challenged books in the United States.

Mira Nalbandian

According to the American Library Association, these are the top 10 most challenged books in the United States.

St. Louis area school districts have once again made local headlines. As Rockwood parents descended into states of madness over the inclusion of books such as “Stamped” in their children’s curriculum, the Wentzville School District recently banned Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye.”

Under the guise of protecting students from the explicit sexual content present in the book, the Wentzville school board decided to prohibit it from their schools. Coincidentally enough, the book is also about a young Black girl living in a post-Great Depression America who has been so affected by racism that she wishes she was white.

As ridiculous as it would be to assume that students are accessing sexual content solely from books written over 50 years ago, the board decided to stand behind this reasoning. They never claimed that the significant racial content of the book is even a minor factor in their decision. States across the country are experiencing the same types of local fights over books regarding race and gender issues, an overwhelming number of which have Black authors. Oh, and they’re all backed by the same conservative donors—a genuine grassroots effort.

To be frank, as long as students have access to the internet, banning any book will not prevent high schoolers from having access to sexual content. The description in the book is difficult to read, yes. But why is that the issue in the first place? 

The real problem is the surge in concern over protecting students from ‘uncomfortable’ subjects, whether it be sexual abuse or, let’s face it, racism, which is what this whole fight is really about. These issues can be hard to discuss, but we cannot sweep them under the rug. Sexual violence, racism, sexism, and many other uncomfortable things occur, and to turn away from their existence is to condone them. For example, in Parkway, English teacher Kim Hanan-West has witnessed debate over whether or not certain books should be taught in schools.

“[Toni Morrison is] a highly decorated writer who does not shy away from the more graphic, nitty- gritty, [or] the aspect of racism and class and caste in America and the parts of our history that are not pretty. I think the argument is at what age is it appropriate to learn about these atrocities and the difficulties of human nature,” Hanan-West said. “But if you think about books like ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which is this, in most cases, accepted piece of literature in most schools that deals with the deepest darkest aspects of human nature. These boys kill one of their own, and yet somehow because there’s not a curse word surrounding this ruthless scene, that has become kind of palatable to people. But then you put a more controversial word in and talk about the brutality of humankind when it comes to race, and people want to ban the book.”

This movement towards banning educational material opposes the foundation of education in the first place. If you don’t want school to be challenging, thought-provoking or even at times uncomfortable; you don’t want school at all, you want daycare.

The whole point of education is to be contradicted, to be wrong and to learn from that experience, and at its basis, to be exposed to material that you are unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, these phenomena are deeply unsettling to those fighting tooth and nail to keep white supremacy in power. After all, if children were prompted by their school material to actually contemplate the racial dynamics of our country, they might realize that we are a deeply racist nation. We wouldn’t want that now, would we?

“I think that what [book banning] does is that it limits an education. And it also has the tendency to simplify history in a way that is unhealthy. It can misconstrue historical and social ideas and simplify them. Frankly, in the case of race in America, it can whitewash that history, which is very concerning,” Hanan-West said.

In Missouri, two conservative groups have been at the forefront of the movement: Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education. The latter has released a list of 75 books that it claims “demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history, and divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.” Unsurprisingly, almost every book on the list includes Black or LGBTQ characters. It’s painfully clear that the only history groups like these care about is the one that erases BIPOC and LGBTQ stories. That way, white people never have to confront white supremacy.

This wave of bans comes with another, broader movement across the country: parent control over classrooms. It’s what won Governor Glenn Youngkin his spot in Virginia. Parents all over America are starting to feel like they should be able to dictate every single piece of information that their child learns, all to ‘protect’ them. This is what spurred House Bill 1134 in Indiana, which aims to restrict teachers’ ability to educate on race, politics and religion and would require parents to post all learning material online before classes if passed. Legislation like this even being drafted is a dangerous precedent.

“As an educator, I have a responsibility to provide a robust and in-depth true full education to my students. I think there’s some room for some compromise. But by the same token, that doesn’t mean that I am going to somehow pretend that racism, sexism or classism don’t exist in our world today,” Hanan-West said. “We’re going to continue to explore those very difficult topics, and I’m going to continue to have students choose books that challenge them. But I’m also going to have them discuss their choices with their families. I don’t feel like one group should be able to leverage control over a library so that others lose access to the texts.”

We live in an extremely connected world. On the one hand, this can create funnels of oppressive ideologies that result in communities of people who want to become more and more isolated from new material. But, on the other hand, this means that we all, including children, have more access to material that we would never have had before. This is a blessing that we take for granted; it allows us to witness people’s experiences unlike ourselves. 

At times, this world can be very upsetting and can make us uncomfortable—it can be hard to live on our planet. But at the end of the day, we cannot avoid our problems because ignoring them only gives these issues more power. This exposure starts with school, and that’s why we protect the right of students to access materials that reveal the truths of our society, even when we would much rather pretend that these realities don’t exist.