The culture war is also being waged in America’s schools. Over the last year, more than 1,600 books were banned from thousands of schools, thanks in part to the efforts of organizations linked to conservative groups.
The Arlington Public Library (Virginia) has said enough. “Of course I respect the right of a parent to say ‘Not this for my son’. What I don’t respect is the right of a parent to come and say ‘Not this for anyone’explains to Efe Diane Kresh, the director of libraries in Arlington County, a small urban enclave separated from Washington by the waters of the Potomac River.
Kresh attends Efe on the occasion of the Week of Prohibited Books, an annual celebration that this year serves as a response to the recent wave of parental censorship in the country, directed, above all, towards stories with racial themes or with LGBT characters.
As part of the celebration, the Arlington Library encourages its readers to check out a book that is banned or challenged in American schools. Texts such as ‘The bluest eye’, by the Nobel Prize for Literature Toni Morrison, or ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir’, by Maia Kobabe.
The message seems to have caught on: this week, all “forbidden” library books are on loan.
In many cases, school book bans are encouraged, promoted, or enforced by conservative politicians, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
Although it has intensified in recent years, censorship linked to the defense of morals has always been a source of controversy in a country where the words ‘we trust in God’ adorn dollar bills, public buildings, and even schools.
According to data from PEN America, an NGO that fights against book bans, 40% of the more than 1,600 volumes censored in American schools during the last year have protagonists or secondary characters who are not white.
For Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist for The New York Times and author of The 1619 Project, a literary project about the history of slavery and its contemporary echoes, vetoing books is a practice that is always associated with some kind of repression.
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“Reading is liberating. Reading opens your world and your perspective, and leads you to question the existing hierarchies in a society,” the writer explained to Efe, minutes before participating in an event at the Arlington Library.
Hannah-Jones’s project has been challenged practically since it was born. It began to be published in 2019 in the pages of The New York Times, and immediately attracted criticism from the then president, Donald Trump, who went so far as to order an educational commission to develop a “patriotic curriculum”, in reaction to the schools that were beginning to use the journalist’s job to teach American history.
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Some states, such as Florida or Texas, have passed laws that prohibit the text from being taught in public schools. At the center of the controversy: critical race theory, a kind of wild-card label that is applied almost automatically to any historical work that examines the role of slavery and racism in the birth of the country’s institutions. “Would anyone have thought two years ago that ‘critical race theory’ was anything?” asks Kresh, half incredulous, half joking.
The term, which few people know how to define exactly, has become a constant in debates on education and indoctrination, and is continually used by conservative media and pressure groups to single out teachers who deal with racism in their classrooms.
“The faculty in America is 80% white women. It defies logic to think that white women are teaching white children that they are oppressors,” says Hannah-Jones.
The history of challenges to reading in America is inextricably linked to slavery and racism. Southern states not only forbade slaves to read, they prevented abolitionist literature from being published, preventing whites from being exposed to anti-slavery ideas.
Similarly, the history of African-American resistance is inevitably linked to the struggle for minority rights, both racial and sexual and gender. In her book, Hannah-Jones argues that the example set by the civil rights movement paved the way for the claims of the gay community in the country.
When it comes to book bans, a lot of it has to do with the portrayal of LGBT characters in children’s reading. According to PEN data, the most banned book this year in US schools was ‘Gender Queer: A Memoir’, an exploration of its author’s gender identity from adolescence to adulthood.
Perhaps that is why the Arlington Public Library has decided to celebrate Banned Books Week with two events that celebrate this history of African-American resistance. The first, a talk by Hannah-Jones before an amphitheater that erupts in cheers every few sentences. The second, a performance by Jubilee Voices, a group of Afro-American singers who recover songs and stories from the times of slavery.
“No more book bans,” they intone, in an updated version of the anthem “Oh Freedom,” as the audience claps and joins them in words of freedom written more than a century ago by freed slaves after the Civil War. Despite the pleas, it looks like the bans will remain as American a reality as the references to God on dollar bills. Meanwhile, in Arlington, the drums beat, and the battle rages on.
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Nobel laureate Toni Morrison: her books banned in the United States?