Levels of Banned Books Skyrocket in the US

Attacking books has been an American tradition since 1650, when Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony seized William Pynchon’s “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption,” labeling it blasphemous for saying obedience, and not suffering, led to atonement. In 1885, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned for “coarse language” (and much later for the use of the n-word). “On the Origin of Species,” probably the most influential book ever banned, was censored in 1895 for violating Christian beliefs. From 2000-2009, the Harry Potter books series was at the top of the list of most banned books, accused of promoting the occult and Satanism.

Now we are seeing a new wave of book bans, marked by an unprecedented number of challenges and intense polarization. Its focus: narrowing the universe of information in schools and public libraries that might challenge young people on race and gender — the same issues at the center of the political and cultural wars ripping through the country. Glenn Youngkin (R), for instance, won the governorship of Virginia in November after highlighting concerns about the teaching of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”; some parents held that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel portrayed the horrors of slavery with overly explicit depictions of sex, violence and bestiality.

More than a thousand book titles, most addressing racism and LGBTQ issues, have now been banned from U.S. classrooms and school libraries in the last nine months, many under pressure from conservative parents and officials, the writers’ organization PEN America said on Thursday. PEN compiled a database of banned books that includes the first novel by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and a memoir by actor and activist George Takei about being sent to an internment camp in California as a Japanese-American child during World War Two.

“Challenges to books, specifically books by non white male authors are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen,” Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression Program and lead author of the report, said in a news release. “What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success.”

In recent months, conservative parents have addressed school board meetings in numerous states to assail books they view as sexually explicit or as addressing racism in a way to make white children feel bad about themselves. In Congress on Thursday, the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing on book bans and academic censorship. Earlier in the week the American Library Association released its own list of banned and challenged books that closely tracked the PEN results.

“Learn to tolerate the speech you abhor as well as the speech you agree with,” Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat, said, imploring conservatives as well as liberals. “If we cancel or censor everything that people find offensive, nothing will be left.” Raskin cited criticism from the left seeking to remove the Mark Twain classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because it uses a racial slur even though its overall theme is opposed to racism and slavery.

PEN found that 86 school districts had removed 1,145 titles from their shelves over the last nine months, some permanently and others while an investigation was under way. Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was removed in 11 school districts, while Ashley Hope Perez’ “Out of Darkness” was removed in 16 districts. Both novels address racism and include sexual content. Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” was removed in 30 districts, the organization said.

More than two-thirds of the banned books were fiction, but non-fiction titles including biographies for children of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Duke Ellington and Nelson Mandela were also among those removed from shelves and school curricula. Five poetry collections were also banned. Four in ten removals were tied to political pressure in eight school districts in Texas, South Carolina and Georgia, the report said.

More broadly, conservatives have lamented what they see as “cancel culture” on the left, such as in March, when the publisher of the famed Dr. Seuss books announced that six titles with racist imagery would stop being printed. “The cancel culture is canceling Dr. Seuss,” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said. Fox News’s Tucker Carlson went further, saying that “if we lose this battle” to preserve the Seuss books, “America is lost.” They don’t seem to mind other books being canceled from schools and libraries, however.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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