(Getty Images/The Kansas Reflector)
By Gretchen Eick
Once again, Texas is throwing its weight around like an overgrown and intimidating bully. As the nation’s biggest purchaser, Texas has long dominated decisions about what is included in social studies textbooks. Now a Texas lawmaker is targeting 850 books — the source of ideas and images that open the mind and stir empathy and intellect.
The books being challenged include Pulitzer Prize-winning books and plays by authors now part of the canon of great American literature. Toni Morrison. Margaret Atwood. Sherman Alexie. August Wilson.
Notably, many of these books address issues faced by people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ. The Dallas Morning News found that “of the first 100 titles listed, 97 were written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors.”
As usually happens with bullies, Texas has a cohort of wannabes rushing to follow suit, admirers who want to emulate the silencing of dissent and discussion by passing their own lists of banned books. Banning books is not new. One hundred years ago and in the 1950s it was an active part of U.S. popular culture.
And it is back with a vengeance.
In Goddard, assistant superintendent for academic affairs Julie Cannizzo sent an email to principals and librarians telling them to remove 29 books from the shelves and not allow them to be checked out, KMUW reported. Her directive violated the district’s policy for challenging and removing books: “Challenged materials shall not be removed from use during the review period.”
Time Magazine had a story by Olivia Waxman earlier this month about a school board meeting in Spotsylvania, Virginia, in which the County Public School Board unanimously ordered its school libraries to begin removing “sexually explicit” books.
Like most book challenges, these began with a single parent.
The 1776 Project PAC, a political action committee using the smokescreen of promoting “patriotism” in schools, funded school board candidates across the nation this year who would fight critical race theory. That was code for the books and teachers who include embarrassing parts of the United States’ past.
Ten Kansas school board candidates were supported by the PAC, in Olathe, Shawnee Mission, Blue Valley, and Lansing races. Seven of them won.
If you visit the PAC’s website, you are encouraged by a persistent pop-up box to “Report a School Promoting Critical Race Theory.” It asks for the school’s name and your email.
White flight in the 20th century meant European-ancestry Americans fleeing urban neighborhoods rather than sharing them with people of color. In the 21st century, white flight means flight from bookshelves — and from the difficult facts of history. The new public enemy, according to this new book-banning crowd, is writing that challenges tired prejudices and stir empathy for those formerly silenced and excluded.
But saner voices can reverse decisions to ban books. That happened in Goddard, when the school board eventually sent out this letter to its staff and families:
“In September, a parent had questions about language and graphics from a specific book in one of our school libraries that their child had checked out. The parent then followed up with the list of the same 28 books (which the district then ordered removed from its shelves). … Today, after the review, the recommendation from principals and librarians is to leave all books active and to encourage parents to contact them directly if they have questions about the books being challenged nationally.”
By the way, the school district doesn’t even own some of the books on the complaining parent’s nationally generated list.
Don’t remain silent when freedoms — including the freedom to access books that tell the truth about our nation and its people — are challenged. Silence implies agreement. Let’s stop this flight from books and ideas.
After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. She wrote this piece for the Kansas Reflector, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.
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