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Book bans in schools are catching fire. Black authors say uproar isn’t about students.

Parents and patrons initiate more than half of all book challenges in the U.S., compared to 1 percent from students, the American Library Association reported.
Image: Author Jerry Craft
Author Jerry Craft.Hollis King

Nearly six months ago, celebrated Black children’s author and illustrator Jerry Craft received a message saying some of his books were being pulled from a school library in Texas. 

“I was caught off guard,” Craft, the Newbery Medal-winning author of the 2019 graphic novel “New Kid,” told NBCBLK. “I felt bad for the kids because I know how much they love ‘New Kid’ and ‘Class Act.’ I know what my school visits do. … I felt bad if there was going to be some kids that would not be able to take advantage of that.”

The person who sent the message to Craft is from Katy, Texas, a town near Houston that has been under fire for attempts to limit the public’s access to books that teach about racism. In October, the Katy Independent School District made headlines for temporarily yanking two of Craft’s books, which tell the stories of Black boys who experience racism in schools, from school libraries and postponing his virtual visit. A now-deleted petition with more than 400 signatures showed parents calling for Craft’s visit to be canceled. 

At the time, Craft tweeted that he was shocked by the accusations.

“Apparently I’m teaching critical race theory,” Craft wrote in response to a parent confused about the ban, citing the decades-old academic and legal framework that teaches about racism in America. 

While the Texas school district reinstated the book and rescheduled his visit, Craft is among dozens of Black authors whose works are being pulled from school libraries under the pretext that they’re teaching critical race theory. (Most of the books that are targeted for bans don’t teach critical race theory but are written by and about people of color.). The American Library Association said its Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 273 books were affected by censorship attempts in 2020, many with content that highlighted race, gender and sexuality. Since September alone, there have been at least 230 challenges, the organization said in an email.

Tiffany D. Jackson, the author of the 2018 novel “Monday’s Not Coming,” about missing girls of color, is in the throes of a similar controversy. At a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, parents demanded that Jackson’s work be banned for “sexual content,” the Loudoun-Times Mirror reported. In an email, Jackson, who is Black, said the book discusses friendship, dyslexia, community, healing and mentions sex, though it is not acted upon. 

Fight for Schools, a local advocacy group calling for the removal of critical race theory from school curriculums, posted on Twitter several clips of outraged parents at a school board meeting reading short passages from “Monday’s Not Coming” containing sexual situations.  

Jackson said the attacks on her work are distressing. 

“It’s hurtful to go through this, to be considered such a monster, allegedly corrupting children,” Jackson wrote in an email. “I had to go back and reread my own book to determine if we’re reading the same story. MONDAY is not about sex. … Reading is fundamental, but context is everything, thus it’s sad to see these schools and parents caught in a game of telephone.” 

Image: "New Kid" and "Class Act" by Jerry Craft.
"New Kid" and "Class Act" by Jerry Craft.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, said many of these book challenges are driven by social media and target stories about people of color.

“We’re disheartened that there is this organized campaign to remove the voices of marginalized communities from the shelves of school libraries,” Caldwell-Stone said. “We’re particularly disheartened that elected officials who do have a duty to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are pressing forward with efforts to remove these books, as well.”

These challenges are also a violation of First Amendment rights, she said. 

“Using censorship as a tool is a denial of that liberty, particularly the liberty of the young people who are targeted by these book bans,” Caldwell-Stone said. 

Critical Race Theory 

At least nine states in mostly Republican areas have passed bills barring educators from teaching about racism in the classroom, and many parents and school boards in these states are doubling down on removing books that tell the stories of LGBTQ people and communities of color from local and school libraries.

Nora Pelizzari, the director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, an organization advocating against censorship on all media platforms, said the challenges are “damaging to all stakeholders.” Pelizzari said educators are forced to either comply or face consequences for protesting it, while students are deprived of narratives that reflect their real lives. 

“When the vast majority of stories being censored and being called things like ‘dangerous’ tell the stories of historically marginalized communities, that directly reflects on students,” Pelizzari said. “That their own stories and their own lives aren’t fit for consumption, either.” 

In the fall, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, released a list of about 850 books that he claimed “make students feel discomfort” due to their content about race and sexuality. Krause urged school libraries in Texas to report whether they had any of the books, including titles such as Mikki Kendall’s 2020 nonfiction work “Hood Feminism,” Kalynn Bayron’s 2020 young adult novel “Cinderella Is Dead” and Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s 2015 young adult novel “All American Boys.” A school district in San Antonio removed more than 400 books that were on Krause’s list last month. In a statement, the school district said it is reviewing the content to “ensure the books are accessible based on age appropriateness.” 

Image: Mikki Kendall
Mikki Kendall.Patrick Thicklin

Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, said he expects to see even more calls to ban books about diversity or featuring characters of diverse backgrounds in 2022. 

“Every time you give in or feed into these demands to remove books just because someone objects to them, it turns into a snowball effect,” Friedman said. “What is so alarming is that we would see books that maybe contain Black protagonists or written by LGBTQ authors be particularly subject to the extra scrutiny.”  

Kendall, whose book “Hood Feminism” highlights the issues facing women of color, said the bans did not stop students from sharing her book with others. 

“There’s nothing more attractive to a kid than a forbidden book,” Kendall said. “I’m watching kids respond by saying, ‘Well, I read the book to see what they were so upset about.’” 

Kendall called the bans a “ridiculous publicity stunt.”

Image: Kalynn Bayron.
Kalynn Bayron.Courtesy Kalynn Bayron

“It’s spreading, and all it’s going to do is undermine education for the kids who are not lucky enough, not risk-seeking enough, not prepared enough to seek out the information on their own,” she said.

Bayron, whose book “Cinderella Is Dead” is about a Black queer girl, said the bans speak to a much larger matter. 

“I don’t see these challenges to my work as a badge of honor,” she said. “These things speak to the level of bigotry that still exists, specifically within our public education system.” 

Jason Reynolds.
Jason Reynolds.James J. Reddington

More than half of book challenges in the U.S. are initiated by parents and patrons, compared to just 1 percent from students, the ALA reported. Amid the national outcry, Reynolds, the co-author of “All American Boys,” which is among the ALA’s most commonly banned books, said he’s not backing down. 

“I’ve never met a young person that has been afraid to read my work,” Reynolds said, adding that opponents are “doing everything they can to shield young people from the things that scare them, not things that scare the children.”

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