Summary:

If you write about sex and sexuality, racism and cultural diversity, your chances of winding up on a banned list are practically guaranteed.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Last year Texas lawmaker, Matt Krause got himself noticed by creating a list of 850 books he deemed unsuitable for young readers. The Krause list of “unsuitable material”—including Class Act (2020) by award-winning writer and illustrator Jerry Craft—was distributed to a large number of schools libraries in the state.

As a consequence, one school district in San Antonio removed around half of the books on the list compiled by state Rep. Krause, 41, who chairs the House General Investigating Committee.

North East Independent School District acted after an investigation found that its libraries contained 414 books on the list. The lawmaker had asked school officials to search their campuses for copies of the books on his list, and ascertain how much had been spent on them.

Now my experience, stretching back almost 60 years, of those who seek to dictate what people can or cannot read, boils down to this: they rarely get past the titles of books, or their descriptions. A notable example was the banning of Anna Sewell’s 1887 novel, Black Beauty, by the censors in apartheid South Africa. At the time, it was reported that the title alone led to the banning.

Image via YouTube

Krause, above, who hopes to elected Tarrant County District Attorney, explained at the time that he was targeting LGBT+ and anti-racist materials that:

Might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.

What qualifications does Krause have to judge the the quality of literature? To my mind, none whatsoever. According to Wiki, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and social sciences from San Diego Christian College, an evangelical outfit, and a Juris Doctor from the Liberty University School of Law.

One also has to question his suitability to hold the post of a D.A. His home page says that he has been:

A conservative voice in the Texas House of Representatives since 2013. During his tenure as a state representative, Matt has fought to protect the unborn, restore trust in our electoral system, defend our Second Amendment rights, secure the border, reform skyrocketing property taxes, strengthen Texas families, preserve religious liberties, and support law enforcement. As District Attorney, Matt will continue to be a Faithful, Conservative, Fighter for Tarrant County residents, Texas values, and the Constitution.

Whoever votes for this far-right lunatic should seek psychiatric help.

Given Krause’s faith-based education and his Trumpian political leanings, I was not surprised by the vast number of LGBT themed titles on the list he cobbled together. What did fill me with “discomfort”—not to mention outrage—was that numerous banned titles were penned by people of color, who drew on their own experiences to show that positive steps can be taken by pupils to counteract deep-rooted racial or sexual orientation prejudices.

It’s no stretch to call the list itself racist, homophobic, and transphobic.

Craft’s graphic novel, New Kid, which deals with a Black student’s attempt to fit in at a new school where levels of diversity are low, does not appear on Kause’s list. However, Craft was taken aback after learning that, shortly after Krause’s list was circulated, several of his books, including New Kid, based on his own life, were removed—albeit temporarily—from a a school library in Texas. A white parent complained that it promoted Critical Race Theory and Marxism.

According to this report, Craft was “surprised.” The story is based on his own experiences as a young Black kid attending a mostly white private school in New York City.

I had to Google Critical Race Theory and try to find out how I was teaching it.

According to NBC News, the person who informed Craft of the ban was from Katy, Texas, a town near Houston that had been under fire for attempts to limit the public’s access to books that teach about racism.

Writing for NBC, Tat Bellamy-Walker said:

While the Texas school district reinstated the book and rescheduled his visit, Craft is among dozens of Black authors whose works are being pulled from school libraries under the pretext that they’re teaching critical race theory. (Most of the books that are targeted for bans don’t teach critical race theory but are written by and about people of color.)

The American Library Association said its Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 273 books were affected by censorship attempts in 2020, many with content that highlighted race, gender and sexuality. Since September alone, there have been at least 230 challenges, the organization said in an email.

At least nine states in mostly Republican areas have passed bills barring educators from teaching about racism in the classroom, and many parents and school boards in these states are doubling down on removing books that tell the stories of LGBT+ people and communities of color from local and school libraries.

Nora Pelizzari, the director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, an organization advocating against censorship on all media platforms, said the challenges are “damaging to all stakeholders.” Pelizzari said educators are forced to either comply or face consequences for protesting it, while students are deprived of narratives that reflect their real lives. 

Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, said he expects to see even more calls to ban books about diversity or featuring characters of diverse backgrounds in 2022. 

Every time you give in or feed into these demands to remove books just because someone objects to them, it turns into a snowball effect. What is so alarming is that we would see books that maybe contain Black protagonists or written by LGBTQ authors be particularly subject to the extra scrutiny.

Around two years ago, Central York High School in Pennsylvania issued a list of banned teaching materials.

The four-page list, circulated by principal Ryan Caufman, named articles, videos, and books from some of today’s most acclaimed creators of color.

It included the Oscar-nominated PBS documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about writer James Baldwin, a children’s coloring book that featured Ghanaian Adrinkra symbols found in fabrics, logos and pottery — and a statement on racism from the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators!

One teacher, who requested anonymity to protect his job, said:

This is disgusting. Let’s just call it what it is — every author on that list is a Black voice.

In the face of considerable outrage, the ban was rescinded. But it took two whole years for the school board to acknowledge the stupidity of its banned materials list.

Image via YouTube

While the war on books in some states continues to escalate, at least one author is fighting back: Egyptian American Aya Khalil, above. In September 2021, Pennsylvania’s Central York School District banned her illustrated novel The Arabic Quilt, an award-winning debut book about fitting in at school.

Khalil, according to Religion News Service, decided to write a book about the ban. The Banned Books Bake Sale, due out in Spring 2023, is about a young woman who fights a ban at her school by telling about experiences in the Egyptian “Arab Spring” revolution of 2011.

Although it’s frequently been reported in the past that the push for book banning has come primarily from parents who believe that their little darlings will become gay or trans— or heavens to Betsy, Muslims— if exposed to LGBT+ or Islamic themed books, The Guardian reported this week that this is certainly not the case.

It pointed out that a CNN poll in early February found that only 12% of Americans believed parents “should have the most sway over which library books are on the shelves and how American history is taught”.

Sure, there have been notable exceptions:

If we cannot promote praying to God and Jesus Christ in our public schools, how can we promote reading the Koran and praying to Muhammad?

That outrageously idiotic quote appeared in a National Coalition of Censorship (NCR) report dating back to 2014 that revealed that some Florida parents were calling for a ban of two children’s books from the public school curriculum over concerns that the books were “promoting” Islam or presenting a critical view of war and U.S. foreign policy.

The row erupted with Facebook posts criticizing The Librarian of Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School, two acclaimed works by Jeanette Winter that were part of the third-grade curriculum in Duval County Public Schools. One post urged parents to file complaints with the district.

The NCR—joined by the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Teachers of English , Society of children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and PEN American Center’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee —sent a letter to Duval County Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti and the School Board reminding them of their constitutional duties as public officials.

They argued that the books teach some invaluable lessons: The Librarian of Basra tells a powerful true story about preserving books during a time of war and violence, and Nasreen’s Secret School is about educating girls in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The letter also explained that the complaints about the books “promoting” Islam were misguided, pointing out that “learning about different cultures—and different faiths—is a core part of a comprehensive education,” one that is embedded in district policy promoting materials that “reflect the contribution of the multiple cultures and ethnicities and recognized in the history of our civilization.”

Part of any progressive educational program, whether it be in the US or elsewhere, is to expose students to the realities of life, and to teach them how to deal with issues such as racism, homophobia, and cultural diversity.

Despite the fact that my early education in apartheid South Africa was predicated on the “fact” that I was superior in every way to Blacks and people of mixed race, and that I was never to interact with people of color except to use them as servants—a system known as “baasskap“—I was far too rebellious to ever accept such a despicable notion.

In those days censorship made it impossible for most South Africans to read the works of Black authors such as James Baldwin, but aged 19, I had become an active member of an underground network of people who illegally imported banned films, books and magazines, and distributed them among those who rejected all forms of censorship.

Despite the fact that my education in apartheid South Africa was predicated on the “fact” that I was superior to Blacks and people of mixed race, I was too rebellious to ever accept such a despicable notion.

I have fond memories of “white sheet” nights held in different homes, where white linen was stretched across a wall, and a projector set up to show movies never allowed in cinemas. At those gatherings a mounting number of banned books were shared. The fact that we were breaking the law only added to the spice of those gatherings.

It beggars belief that more than half a century on, school boards, which have a duty to teach tolerance, respect, and inclusivity, are doing precisely the opposite.

By creating lists of banned literature they on a mission to stifle the voices of talented and passionate social justice writers, many of color, and are denying students their right to learn that they are not alone in being targeted for their differences, whether they relate to their color or sexuality, in schools where diversity is regarded as sinister liberal plot to undermine white superiority.

This has to be stopped—and stopped soon before more damage is done to the social fabric of America, under strain as never before in recent history, thanks to the divisive politics of the Trump era, which gave new life to white supremacist movements and ultimately led to the attempted insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 last year.

• This is my third report on censorship. You can see the two earlier reports here and here.

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....