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Banned Black History Can Teach Us How to Fight Right-Wing School Censorship

As “Banned Books Week” comes to a close, it’s crucial to acknowledge right-wing censorship’s deep roots in U.S. history.

MoveOn Political Action’s Banned Book Mobile stops for an event with local authors and teachers on October 1, 2023, in Decatur, Georgia.

The American Library Association (ALA) recently reported there have been 695 attempts to censor library materials and services, as well as documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles over a seven-month period in 2023.

According to the ALA report, “The majority of the targeted books were ‘written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.’ For example, in Iowa’s Urbandale Community School District, the Des Moines Register obtained a list of ‘374 books flagged for removal without knowing if the district even owned the books.’”

The ALA is just one organization backing “Banned Books Week” from October 1-7. The long-standing national effort first originated in 1982 and brings attention to the essential importance of free and open access to information and the freedom to express ideas. The effort is supported by a wide coalition of organizations including the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Amnesty International USA, the Association of University Presses, the Children’s Book Council, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Freedom to Read Foundation, GLAAD, the National Book Foundation, the National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN America to name a few. Throughout the past week, these organizations, alongside bookstores, libraries and universities, hosted engaging programs and events that shined a spotlight censorship, including several banned books displays and read alongs.

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, it’s critical to acknowledge not only the current crisis but also its deep roots in the history of the United States. Republican-dominated state and local governments are either curtailing or punishing schools and colleges from teaching, reading about or engaging in conversations related to diversity, including the civil rights movement and/or Black history, as an intentional and long-running effort to turn back the hands of time in U.S. educational settings.

These efforts are not a passing whim, and the world is noticing. Major celebrities in the art and entertainment industries are sounding the alarm about book bans. Several states are at the forefront of the book ban initiatives, including Texas, Florida, Missouri and Utah.

According to an Education Week report, since early 2021, 44 states introduced bills and/or took steps restricting the teaching of critical race theory, including limiting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Full bans on the subject have been attempted or implemented across states via legislation or other measures. Many of these bans stem from an executive order banning certain types of diversity training in federal agencies signed by former President Donald Trump in 2020, as well as other political attacks on critical race theory.

For the African American community, literacy and the accurate, holistic researching, writing and publishing of knowledge about Black history are always key issues. There has been a clear targeting of Black history- and Black life-related books, as well as Black authors, by these bans. In response, the September 2023 national annual conference for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History focused on teaching Black history, resistance to the rise of racism across the country and also held a banned book read out.

As the association reminds us, there are clear lessons from the civil rights movement about how to fight against the toxic, generational racism that is hiding in plain sight. Freedom Schools in Mississippi began in 1964 to elevate the literacy of Black sharecroppers and others who had limited or no formal education. The schools were initially organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a part of Freedom Summer in which thousands of young people, including Black and white college students, organized and traveled throughout the South to conduct voter registration drives.

Approximately 40 Freedom Schools were set up to teach subjects like reading, math and civics, as well as help Black citizens know and exercise their constitutional rights. Although fraught with danger from local and national hate groups, those youth activists made a tremendous difference in shifting the narratives around future possibilities.

One of the lessons they taught is the importance of fighting back in educational settings, not only with resources used by teachers and college faculty but also with foundational principles of academic freedom. But there are repercussions: Teachers who use a diverse range of sources for teaching lessons related to equity, social justice and different identities and backgrounds are losing their jobs. For example, a Houston middle school teacher was recently fired for reading an excerpt from a graphic novel about Anne Frank. According to the ALA, in 2022 there was a 38 percent increase in attempts to ban books compared to 2021.

To be sure, the teaching of civics in age-appropriate learning spaces is a traditional educational approach. However, limiting the educational experiences for high school and college students isn’t new and has an ugly legacy.

Throughout the mid- to late-1800s, John H. Van Evrie made it his life’s work to write favorably about white supremacy and the value of white rule. He was an influential author, writing versions of U.S. history that were later used as textbooks, often published in northern cities such as Chicago. Historian Donald Yacovone, in his 2022 book Teaching White Supremacy: America’s Democratic Ordeal and the Forging of Our National Identity, calls Van Evrie “the nation’s first professional racist.”

New and old evils such as ignorance and denial of a holistic understanding of U.S. history define this country’s truth. But many proponents of educational freedom are pushing back, including 10 high schools in Boston moving forward with Advanced Placement courses in Black history now banned in Florida and other states. Those students are exploring historical topics including enslavement, resistance, movements and debates, African empires and kingdoms, civil rights and racial uplift, according to a press release from district leaders.

It remains essential for policy makers, educators, parents, students and education leaders to protest book bans and other restrictions on age-appropriate information. This week, concerned individuals from all walks of life demanded unfettered access to books that inform the human condition, advance critical and independent thinking, and that represent the full range of the human experience.

Book bans by their very nature close minds, and represent a type of cultural and social control used by authoritarian systems of government. The past many believed long dead has returned with a renewed vengeance.

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