The Trend Continues: Books with Civil Rights Themes Challenged in Schools
An opinion piece in the Washington Post recently addressed a Virginia mother who objected to her son reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in class. The reasons rely on predictable tropes – she said the book was “hard for him to handle” and reportedly gave him night terrors. Her claims were featured in a political ad for the newly elected Governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin.
In a related move, Texas Republican Representative Matt Krause is investigating books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” The irony here, Philip Bump’s piece points out, is that all this fervor over books that create “discomfort” in teens and tweens comes on the heels of conservatives claiming censorship and “cancel culture” when Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceased publication of six books that portray racist imagery.
“Here we see the irony in suggestions that I use the imagery in Seuss’s books to teach my young son about the history of racist stereotypes. Seuss books do have an educational component, certainly, one deployed in schools and informally by parents — but the focus of the books is on reading and the enjoyment of reading, not on better understanding the diaspora of imaginary talking creatures Seuss invented,” Bump said.
The question many teachers, librarians and parents are asking is how this hypocrisy plays out in the mind of conservatives who aim to shield their own children from “psychological distress” but feel no qualms about young children seeing racist imagery in picture books.
Children begin to develop ideas about their own identity and others’ by a very young age. Bias is not a trait bestowed only on adults. Children as young as preschool age start to show signs of racial bias, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University.
Bump points out that in the pursuit of education, one occasionally subjects themselves to discomfort in order to learn and grow. The idea that the content and themes in Beloved are psychologically distressing is exactly the point, he says. While there are limits to the extent of discomfort that any student should experience in school, Bump says, “…promoting a world in which books never make a student feel uncomfortable is promoting a world in which learning is hampered.”
Conservatives want to maintain a rose-colored perception of the genesis of the United States. They are outraged that Seuss Enterprises seeks to limit harm to children by ceasing publication of books that may perpetuate bias while simultaneously trying to quash teaching the history of enslavement and oppression of Black people in America. It’s controlling a narrative.
Bump questions whether using the Seuss books to teach a lesson to his own (or anyone’s) four-year-old is useful. He implies the lesson may be better when a child is old enough to understand the real damaging impact of portraying Black and Asian people with offensive and racist caricatures. I would go so far as to say that the lesson to be taught in these books is really only a lesson to those who are privileged enough to be unaware of racism in the first place. How many Black children and teenagers need proof of racism to know that it exists?
A majority of the 850 books that Rep. Matt Krause wants to ban from Dallas schools have LGBTQ themes, according to a breakdown by Book Riot. A graphic created by the site shows 62.4% are about LGBTQ issues, 14.1% are about sex education, and 8.3% are about race and racism. Fifteen percent are about miscellaneous topics and most are young adult titles.
These percentages seem to track with the overall trend of book challenges before the conservative fervor over Critical Race Theory, a legal framework and academic movement, disrupted schools across the country. In an interview with NPR, the Director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom Deborah Caldwell-Stone said, “We went from a situation where the majority of books being challenged and removed in schools and libraries dealt with LGBTQ themes, to a situation where there’s a real mix.”
This newly emboldened trend of parents, politicians and community members aiming to remove books focused on civil rights issues from schools and libraries is troubling. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) continues to receive “reports from libraries, schools, and the media on attempts to ban books in communities across the country.” You can report censorship to ALA by filling out this online form, or contacting OIF Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll at 800-545-2433, ext. 4221, or via email: email@example.com.
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey worked as a public librarian for 10 years before becoming full-time residential library faculty at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.