Records Set In 2021-For Book Banning. With Texas Leading The Charge, The Revival Is Off & Runnin'



Written By: Anton Sawyer

When you get down to brass tacks, the similarities between The Holy Bible and “Mein Kampf” by Adolf Hitler are pretty striking—I know because I read both as a teenager. My interest in them came from the same place: in the history of mankind, both have been responsible for the deaths of millions. If whatever was written in each of these pieces can cause such mass devastation, what could be learned to prevent it from happening again?


Though I found most of what I read offensive to my intellectual core in both cases, the thought never crossed my mind that either of these tomes should be removed from society. I’ve always felt that restricting access to knowledge and ideas that differ from my own is detrimental to what makes us grow as a species, no matter how they make us feel. That’s what the topic of today’s article is going to focus on; the recent surge of book bannings taking place in certain areas nationwide due to the icky feelings that those books present to some.


Book burning exhibit at the Muhlenberg branch library on West 23rd Street, Manhattan. The New York Public Library Archives
Book burning exhibit at the Muhlenberg branch library on West 23rd Street, Manhattan. The New York Public Library Archives Scan by NYPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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As a writer, I value the written word immensely. Throughout the history of man, books have been able to help change the face of the American landscape. Whether it’s a work of fiction that causes national upheaval and legislative change (like “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair towards the meatpacking industry and unionization), or one of nonfiction that can cause national acceptance of the marginalization and murder of their fellow man en masse (like the aforementioned “Mein Kampf”), the importance of books cannot be understated. Given that 2021 was a record-breaking year in the number of requests public libraries received when it came to banning books, I felt it was necessary to see where all this rage is coming from, what the numbers are, and what the potential future looks like.


One thing to keep in mind before we jump in too deep; local public libraries are not regulated by the state. Instead, they are usually part of a county or city budget funded by local taxpayers. Therefore, rules for public libraries, including complaints about content, are determined at the local level. These rules are also different than those applied to public schools. This is going to become key later on when it comes to potential state involvement in certain issues when the locals don’t get their way.


2021 was a tumultuous year for almost everyone in the nation to one degree or another, and it seems that libraries nationwide were also victims. Because there is a difference in the way that the libraries are governed, let’s start with those inside public schools.

From calls in Virginia to burn “sexually explicit” books in a school library to a wave of challenges to titles by authors ranging from Toni Morrison to Alison Bechdel, the American Library Association (ALA) is charting an unprecedented rise in attempts to ban books in libraries. “It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen in my time at the ALA–the last 20 years. We’ve never had a time when we’ve gotten four or five reports a day for days on end, sometimes as many as eight in a day,” says ALA director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. “Social media is amplifying local challenges and they’re going viral, but we’ve also been observing a number of organizations activating local members to go to school board meetings and challenge books. We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism.” That last sentence contains the themes which are going to be most prevalent throughout all of this—LGBTQ+ issues and racism.


When combing through the states when it comes to their individual contributions towards this “moral cleansing,” the one that had some of the most egregious examples came from the Lone-Star State. Pack your bags, we’re going to Texas!


It’s never a good idea to underestimate the abilities of those who are utterly convinced they have some moral advantage allowing them to tell others how to live their lives. The recent spillage of the school library book bannings over to the local/state level of Texas is a good example. In the fall of 2021, there were a few events that took place in close proximity that show how the voice of the people is definitely being heard by their local leaders—even when that voice is promoting censorship at the top of its lungs. All being done while preaching the virtues of the US Constitution.


On October 25th, 2021 Republican State Rep. Matt Krause asked school districts to report if they had any of 850 books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex." Not surprisingly, Krause’s wide-ranging list included well-regarded nonfiction and fiction works focused on LGBTQ identity, race, and history. The Amnesty International tome “We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures” is one notable example.


In response to Krause’s inquiry, Republican Governor Greg Abbott tapped the Texas Education Agency to investigate the availability of “pornographic books” in schools. In the weeks following, school districts across the state launched reviews of their book collections, and state officials began investigating student access to inappropriate content. Because nobody wants their children exposed to pornography, and certain residents of Texas have seen this moral vagueness be applauded by their state-wide leaders, they’ve taken the initiative to start the book banning process in their own communities. And these people are doing it through a complete blitzkrieg approach.


An example of this tactic of overwhelming your opponent comes from Victoria, Texas resident, Amy Garvel when she joined other residents and formed a group that combed through the library’s online catalog looking for this same type of pornographic material mentioned by Abbott. They compiled a list of more than 200 books they found inappropriate, ranging from picture books to young adult books, Garvel said. Garvel herself submitted two requests for removal for the books “If I Was Your Girl” by Meredith Russo and “Rick” by Alex Gino. “My goal is really to protect the children in our community in general, not just my own children,” said Garvel. “I’m hoping that [the library] sees that we’re not trying to censor books that we’re trying to protect our children. I mean, the library was one of the last places that we could feel safe.”


Another Victoria resident who pushed for book removals was Cindy Herndon. “It’s nothing that I have against anybody in any community,” said Herndon, 64. “I don’t have any resentment or lack of respect for them. It’s just about protecting the children and exposing them to things that they really don’t need to see right now.” Her complaint about the title "Black Flamingo" was distilled into one specific issue. To her, it seemed to “sexualize children, especially into alternate lifestyles, and make them want to be someone else than who they were born to be.”


The sheer volume is being felt throughout the library system as a result. “A library may get one or two [book challenges] in two years, or some librarians have never had challenges,” Wendy Woodland, the Texas Library Association’s director of advocacy and communication, said. “So, this is very rare and very unusual and different from the way challenges have been brought forth in the past.”


Thankfully, all of the challenges have gotten stifled at the local level.


After Dayna Williams-Capone, the director of library services in Victoria, and her staff reviewed the requests, they decided to keep the books in the library. Residents who filed the complaints pushed forward, appealing the decision to the library’s advisory board for about half of the books, Williams-Capone said. Another complaint that occurred in Irving, Texas, was also dismissed in a City Council meeting by Mayor Rick Stopfer. Afterward, Flory Malloy, a self-described mother of seven with a doctorate in biblical studies, told council members she felt the library system and its appeal process seemed pointless because, in the end, books that are challenged remain on the shelves. “The process ended with a denied appeal to remove the book,” she told council members as she described one challenge that appeared to go nowhere. “It seems to be a point of pride for the Irving Public Library that they have never removed a book as the result of this process, so what’s the purpose of this time-consuming review process?”


Because of the way this complaint in Irving, along with numerous others statewide, have been handled, there has been talk amongst these pocketed groups in gaining the support of local legislators to see if there’s a way to change the public library allocations, or perhaps even a way to change the laws themselves into meeting the needs of having a final say in what everyone in their community can have access to reading.


It chills me to think that in the 21st Century humankind is still trying to ban books. With how available knowledge is with the proliferation of the internet into every nook and cranny of our lives, I see these bannings as more of a symbolic issue. You can’t control what your kids see online—they know how to get around parental locks, or they simply go to their friends’ houses. I think these objectors see the loss of control brought about by the internet and its wealth of knowledge as somehow untenable, so the next best thing is to prevent access to the material they object to in whatever way possible. It’s like a cornered animal fighting for its life, its bite will eventually land somewhere.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The only hope that I have from the entire situation in Texas comes from the same person who refused to ban the book he was asked to consider in Irving; Mayor Stopfer. He said he read the book in question, “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)” by LC Rosen, and even though he didn’t particularly care for parts of the book, he understood the need for it. The book, which follows a gay teenager who starts a teen sex advice column, was said to have a benefit by Stropfer in that “it tells you that you can have a loving relationship with a person of your same gender.” He continued, “Everybody’s not going to like everything. It’s not something that I enjoyed reading, but I understood what the purpose of it was, and what the outcome was supposed to be.” I’m only hoping that this is the value that he can not only impart to his immediate constituents but also to the state as a whole.


I’m not holding my breath.


Also, before I go, what are those similarities between the Bible and Hitler’s work? I guess you’ll just have to read them for yourself to find out.


 

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