Christina and Renee Ellis, students at Central York High School, a predominantly white school in Pennsylvania, helped reverse a book ban targeting the work of Black authors.
For about a month, the sisters and several of their classmates in the Panther Anti-Racist Union, a student-led racial and social justice advocacy group, protested the challenge after an all-white school board banned diverse educational materials, including a book about Rosa Parks; “Hidden Figures,” a story about Black female mathematicians; and the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” about the author and cultural critic James Baldwin.
Dozens of students, parents and educators held brightly colored signs with slogans like “BLM” and “Education is not indoctrination” outside the school. Edha Gupta, one of the organizers, also wrote letters to the editor of the city’s newspaper, while others read excerpts of the banned books on Instagram. Renee said the protests were an important step in holding the district accountable for fostering an inclusive environment for students of color.
“We didn’t want history to repeat itself, with hiding history, hiding the experiences of people of color in this country,” Renee said. “We also wanted to make sure that the younger kids underneath got a full education, especially with the murder of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor and so many other social justice issues in America.”
Christina said it’s crucial for young Black students to see themselves in books.
“If a little girl or Black girl goes into her school library and can’t find a single book that represents her and people are telling her that she doesn’t really matter, she will treat herself as such. She will act like she doesn’t matter, and that’s how a cycle continues,” Christina said.
The Ellis sisters are two examples of young people who are fighting back after a conservative wave of activism led to books’ being banned in schools and libraries. Even though some parents claim that their children would be uncomfortable reading literature about race and LGBTQ issues, students initiate fewer than 1 percent of book challenges in the U.S., while parents and patrons account for more than half, according to the American Library Association, a book monitoring group.
In addition, the bans aren’t keeping students away from diverse literature.
“There’s nothing more attractive to a kid than a forbidden book,” author Mikki Kendall said last month. “I’m watching kids respond by saying, ‘Well, I read the book to see what they were so upset about.’”
Jaiden Johnson, a seventh grader at Meridian World School in Round Rock, Texas, said his school library temporarily had a section of banned books, which became extremely popular among students.
“There was a bunch of kids crowded trying to get through trying to check out all the books, because they wanted to read them before they went away again,” said Jaiden, who is 12.
He is one of two Black middle school students who started the Round Rock Black Students Book Club, a virtual student-led community group in which students of color can read books about characters that represent them.
Jaiden said he hopes Black kids can have access to a diverse range of stories — not just ones focused on pain and suffering.
“I wanted a chance for all the Black kids in my community to get together and know each other better and read about Black characters that inspire us and not just about Black people and slavery,” he said.
Kharia Pitts, 12, another club leader, echoed that many books lack stories about people of color.
“I have books that star Black people, but I don’t have a lot of them,” said Kharia, who is in the sixth grade. “I was thinking of other kids who don’t think that there are books about Black people, and I want to change that, because that’s almost what I thought.”
The book club is reading books by the banned Black author Jason Reynolds, including his 2017 novel “Miles Morales,” about a Black Spider-Man, and Brandy Colbert’s 2019 novel “The Only Black Girls in Town,” about two Black girls who find a hidden collection of journals. Two years ago, parents in Florida challenged Colbert’s book “Little & Lion,” claiming it includes inappropriate language and sexually explicit content, the Sun Sentinel reported.
Jaiden said he was forced to leave his former school because teachers often subjected him to racist microaggressions, such as confusing him with other Black students or asking whether other Black students were his siblings.
Through the book club, he said, students of color finally have the power to center Black voices, which rarely get the same spotlight as those of their white peers in the classroom.
“It makes me feel good when I read about characters and they have the same skin color as me and they’re not just, like, background characters, like in most books,” he said.
As for the opposition to books about Black characters, Kharia said it’s unfortunate that some parents want to hide racism from their children.
“If kids of all other races learn about the truth and what happened to all types of people, then we won’t have to go back and repeat it,” she said. “That way, we’re not stuck in an endless cycle.”