Texas’s Book Censorship Hysteria: An interview with Ashley Hope Pérez

Censorship, Diversity, Education, General Interest, School Libraries

Imagine the book censors get their wish: school classrooms and libraries are stripped of any book and teaching material which references, alludes to, or explicitly mentions anything about race. Or sexuality.

Then imagine this: George Floyd’s daughter walks into a school where she’s told that studying racial disparities causes too much division and is inappropriate.

The recent explosion of book challenges in Texas begs the question: what do you want students to read and to study?

Let’s be honest: I doubt the parents in Texas who all of a sudden are book censors have spent substantial amounts of time reading the books they now deem dangerous and considering them thoughtfully with open minds.

Case in point: first published in 2015, Ashley Hope Pérez’s award-winning novel Out of Darkness had thus far escaped the crosshairs of unjust censorship, but is just now falling victim. Not overtly because of Critical Race Theory fears but a misinterpreted sexual reference.

At a Lake Travis ISD school board meeting, local parent Kara Bell claimed that the book teaches children about anal sex. Here’s the actual passage from page 31, not 39 (she misses the correct page number). (It should be noted that she is a previous board member candidate and was previously issued a citation after a confrontation about a mask mandate.)

What serves as a powerful representation of the objectification of women is grossly misinterpreted by a woman. In a recent interview, Ashley Hope Pérez told me, “I would think a person objecting to the sexual content in the book might pick different scenes because I do engage with adolescent sexuality. Adolescents have bodies whether or not they are having sex. Sexual experience is part of their world.

They need to have spaces to see what is toxic behavior, to learn what sexual objectification looks like, that sexual abuse survivors can have positive sexual experiences.”

In other words, the sexual content is not gratuitous but rather fulfills a much larger, important, and poignant purpose that will be missed if a person has not read the entire book.

Pérez stated, “These parents aren’t reading the book, and these recent objections are not spontaneous parent concern. Once a book has been targeted like mine has, it’s just a matter of flipping through pages to notice content they don’t like, or maybe even just viewing a screenshot posted by others with similar views.” In her oral objection to Pérez’s book, Kara Bell even cited the wrong page for the passage she read aloud. (Kara Bell cites page 39, but the passage is actually on page 32 in all print editions of the book.)

Unfortunately for the students’ intellectual freedom rights, the district removed the book from Hudson Bend and Bee Cave Middle Schools, pending further review. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship, the district policy states that the book should remain available during the review process. In Leander ISD, board member Jim MacKay even resigned because of “taxpayer dollars being utilized to purchase disgustingly inappropriate ‘literature’.”

Even the book summary from the news outlet is lacking: “The book chronicles a love affair between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl against the backdrop of a horrific 1937 explosion in East Texas.”

It’s so much more than that. 

Pérez: “When it comes to “why” explorations of sexuality belong in the book, are integral to it, it’s about the importance of representing sexual abuse as a reality. It happened even if no one talked about it. I had high school students who experienced that and found reading literature helped them name what happened to them. Responding to silences around painful aspects of our histories is important to me. As for positive, consensual sexual experiences, I feel it’s important that I don’t portray only the abuse but also the possibility of reclaiming sexuality; Naomi does eventually experience safety in her body with Wash. I hear from survivors saying that was important to them, and it was important to me.”

It is interesting that no objections have been raised about the book related to race. Pérez shared that white readers have told her reading the book caused them to have a different sense of what people of color in our country have experienced and continue to experience.

“Before one student read Out Of Darkness, she couldn’t really understand how what would happen to her if she were stopped speeding would be different from someone else. Another, as a white man, hadn’t experienced public vulnerability but instead safety, freedom; a person of color would not have the same privilege. Through the book, we see things that are still issues with more clarity. They may have been more dramatic in the past, but they still need attention and healing now.”

As Pérez’s experiences illustrate, books such as Out of Darkness do not make white readers feel ashamed and guilty but rather empathetic and better able to interpret complex current events.

Carroll ISD in Southlake, TX, is now in the news for more extreme measures censoring books in classrooms. According to new districtwide guidelines, teachers will use a rubric to help determine which books are allowed to remain in classrooms. Furthermore, the Carroll school board recently voted to formally reprimand an award-winning teacher for having a copy of This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell in the classroom. 

Roosevelt Alexander Elementary School, part of Katy ISD in Katy, TX, recently postponed a planned in-person visit from award-winning author Jerry Craft and temporarily removed his books from library shelves after parent complaints about the books promoting critical race theory. One parent is quoted as saying, “The books don’t come out and say, ‘we want white children to feel like oppressors,’ but that is absolutely what they will do.” As Craft explains in a statement about this development, “I wanted to illustrate the things that kids like me had to face on a daily basis–like teachers confusing you with another kid of color, or classmates being afraid to come to your house because they assume you live in a bad neighborhood. These things are a lot for a kid to deal with. Oh, and you still have to get good grades! To counteract these stressful moments, I added elements such as strong values, loving families, very supportive friends, and plenty of humor.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott recently signed into law HB 3979 which prohibits lots of behaviors centered on interpreting anti-racist education as indoctrination against “true patriotism,” which seems to have become synonymous with white-washing history:

“a teacher who chooses to discuss a topic described
by Subdivision (1) shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability,
strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending
perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective”

I wonder about this hypothetical conversation in which a history teacher must attempt to defend lynching in a classroom with students of color.

Leander ISD in Leander, TX, has censored titles from classroom libraries as well. On the list is Out of Darkness (along with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Shout, Nikki Grimes’s Ordinary Hazards memoir, Ibi Zoboi’s American Street and many other diverse titles). Pérez traveled to Leander with PEN America during Banned Books Week and met with the school board on September 28, 2021. She said, “they have relinquished control of curriculum to a handful of hysterical parents who don’t represent the broader community. There are challenges to world history textbooks as well, not just literature. I’ve heard from parents of kids who wanted to go to the board meeting and speak to support the teachers but were afraid and left.”

“Lake Travis and Leander have gotten disoriented instead of being thoughtful and are not centering students. They aren’t focusing on books by white authors including sexual content like Shakespeare and The Great Gatsby.”

“These parents are not demanding a choice for their kids (that was already provided since none of these books were required reading); they are demanding a removal of choices for other people’s kids. This is about an element of control, not even protecting or saving children from pornographic material; it’s about controlling a narrative in the curriculum.”

“I think that, on some level, the parents objecting to my book and others in central Texas imagine that segregating these stories will protect imagined white innocence and purity. Challenges often focus on books that provide information against central myths, it’s as if these books providing factual information are experienced as personal affronts to white identity. The book’s setting in Texas is about the impact of racism; now these challenges in Texas are the setting of racially motivated opposition.”

Pérez also posted the following video to her Youtube channel responding to Bell.

Why are these complaints originating from local school boards? According to this NBC news article, the meteoric rise of anti-CRT hysteria originates in part from the group No Left Turn in Education whose founder was invited on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News show, which caused the movement to gain significant followers. Eventually Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, worked to rebrand words and meaning to mind-control Americans. It worked.  

The initial impetus for anti-racist education (Cultural Competency Action Plan) in Southlake, Texas, wasn’t random or an attempt at leftist indoctrination. The catalyst? A video in 2018 of white Carroll High School students saying the n-word which resulted in parents calling for diversity education.

How do we move forward? Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series.

To read more about Ashley Hope Pérez’s response, read her recent Twitter thread.

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