Banning Books Is a Modern-Day American Horror Story

We Must Expose This Injustice as a Threat to Civil Rights and Liberties

The ongoing struggle in the US to protect people’s fundamental civil liberties and rights never ceases to amaze me. Banned Books Week is another important and timely reminder of how the right to read books remains one of the most contested activities in American culture. 

Every year multiple cases emerge of banned and challenged books throughout the country. What will not surprise TIE readers is that several of these banned and challenged books explore DEIA topics, illuminate the histories and lived experiences of marginalized people, and/or are written by authors of color, as author Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in a recent interview with “CBS Mornings.” It remains a head-scratching fact that works by Frederick Douglass, Toni Morrison, and Rosa Parks raise ire among some people, to the point that they insist on removing those works from libraries and school curriculums. 

As a child growing up in inner-city Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s, books were my escape. A plethora of knowledge beyond my course assignments was literally at my fingertips. The people, places, and things I learned about from books in my school library and local public library branch have been just as seminal to my educational and career trajectory as my degrees. Reading books outside of classes taught me critical life lessons on the power of completion, stillness, and focus that I carry with me today. Moreover, I was able to see myself and know that the triumphant story of Black success was informed and marred by another American horror story—slavery.  

This year, Banned Books Week takes on new meaning for me, directly impacting my circle of friends and colleagues. In February 2021, the highly acclaimed, award-winning book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (2020), written by Martha S. Jones (J.D., PhD), was banned by a Louisiana public library board. The board also rejected a state grant to fund the program in which Martha was scheduled to be a speaker. 

She is the first person I know whose book was banned. 

Martha shared this terrible news on Twitter, noting also that she reached out to the American Library Association and the Office for Intellectual Freedom for advice. According to the Louisiana board, Martha’s book was banned because there are two sides to the story of Black women seeking the right to vote. The board believes that this mythological counterargument is significant enough to place aside the stories of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Church Terrell, and scores of other leaders.

This is a false assertion on behalf of this public library board. 

It is also clear that this public library board did not read Martha’s book. Their rationale appeared to be rooted in the same exhausting, ahistorical narrative we frequently hear when historical truth elevates the stories of Black women and people. Martha shared the story of her book being banned in our TIE “Fall Semester” podcast and in a Washington Post op-ed (paywalled). The public library board’s action was condemned by Louisiana State Senator Gerald Boudreaux (D), the ACLU of Louisiana, the League of Women VotersStand Black, and the NAACP. The American Library Association and United for Libraries also sent a letter urging the board to rethink their decision

The banning of Martha S. Jones’s book and works by other BIPOC authors is why the annual focus on Banned Books Week matters. As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones pointed out in an interview on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” we are seeing certain politicians and public officials “trying to control the collective memory of this country.” Stripping citizens of their right to read in a democracy is antithetical to the principles upon which the US was built. It is an attack on civil rights and liberties, and it must be treated as the threat to freedom that it is. 

We must push back on banning and challenging books as much as possible in partnership with authors, historians, researchers, school administrators, and students. One recent example is the protest by the students of a Central York, Pennsylvania school district. That school board’s action to remove works by or about Ibram X. Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Jacqueline Woodson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin garnered international press. In response to the widespread criticism it received, the decision was recently reversed

Those of us in the information professions and committed to education must elevate the injustice perpetrated against authors who dare to share perspectives and stories different from white, heteronormative standards. Banned Books Week programming and advocacy on behalf of authors must reach beyond heightening awareness. 

Ending the perpetuation of the American horror story of banning books starts with all of us. 

Sign up for Toward Inclusive Excellence (TIE) new post notifications and updates.

Interested in contributing to TIE? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice with your topic idea.

Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.