Library, bookstore owners discuss long history of racial books being banned

This week, the small library’s windows are filled with new window displays of black capital letters on charred pages. Below are the ALA’s most challenging books, such as “The Hate U Give” and “Lawn Boy,” propped up by paper flames.

School districts, libraries and other organizations have long banned books on popular topics based on race, from books against white supremacist laws to their accounts of race relations. As social movements continue to increase domestic conversations around race, so too has opposition to it, creating challenges for what some see as problematic literature.

While some claim the new wave of banned and challenged books is rooted in the need to protect people, many librarians, like Petit Branch library manager Carol Johnson, see it as a deeper problem.

“I think (the banned book) is more of a censorship issue,” Johnson said. “I think it’s gotten quite a bit of attention because there’s been a significant increase in people trying to ban books.”

Challenging acts a little differently than banning a book. According to the ALA, a challenge is when someone petitions or attempts to restrict or remove a material or book, while an injunction is the removal and restriction of said material or book.

Notably, The Hate U Give, part of Petit’s window display, faced bans and challenges even after its film adaptation was released in 2018.

This fictional book tells the story of 16-year-old Star Carter’s struggle to become an activist after her unarmed friend is murdered by a police officer. The book has faced several challenges since its publication, and in 2017 a school district in Katy, Texas, was the first to ban it.

Since then, it has been in the ALA’s top ten most challenging books for reasons such as profanity, violence, and its overt anti-police message. While these arguments are not directly related to the subject of the book, people like Selena Giampa, creator of the Thomas and Parthenon books, argue against their inconsequential nature.

“When you see some challenged books, sometimes you have to dig to find out why it’s even a problem, because ‘offensive’, for lack of a better word, is so trivial,” Giampa said.

In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Thomas talked about why people are banning and challenging books, arguing that the number of people killed by police in 2017 grossly outnumbered her book’s controversial swear words.

“Everyone will say they believe in freedom and the right to choose for themselves what they see, read (or) experience, but when it goes beyond their reduced tolerance, they want to immediately remove anything that makes them uncomfortable,” Giampa Say. “It’s not enough to just remove yourself from it or choose not to eat it. They want it to go away.”

Sherman Alexie, whose book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, faced the same backlash, saying it was important to arm young people with knowledge rather than coddling them.
“I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it was like to be a teenager facing everyday and epic dangers. I didn’t write to protect them. It was too late. I wrote to give them weapons—to In the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters,” Alexey said in the Wall Street Journal op-ed. “I wrote in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”

Alexie’s book centers on a teenage cartoonist named Junior, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation and attends an all-white high school. Readers learned that Junior struggled to find his place as he was both seen as a traitor on the reservation and abandoned at school.

The book was originally banned in Stockton, Missouri, for “violence, language and some pornography.” Like The Hate You Give, Alexie’s book has been challenged and banned since its release, and was the ALA’s most-challenged book from 2017 to 2018 and 2020 to 2021.
As the practice of banning books continues to gain traction, Giampa said it’s important to note the subtext behind those bans.

“When we step out and stop focusing on these things, we almost always guarantee that the most extreme among us, who tend to be very focused on their extreme views, make decisions for us,” Giampa said.


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