A Texas book ban is an attack on the freedom to learn

This statement was originally published on pen.org on 17 August 2021.

Here we go again.Months after the Leander Independent School District in Texas made headlines for banning a slate of books and graphic novels from its secondary school curriculum, the Austin-area district earlier this month released its decisions on an additional set of titles. Thirteen books are to be removed from schools, with an additional six titles suspended until further notice.

Challenges to books in schools come all the time, from parents, community leaders, or even teachers. But what’s alarming in Leander is that so many books are being removed together – and that the 19 titles slated for removal and suspension predominantly feature stories about race and gender. Many were written by women and people of color, and won awards for their groundbreaking narratives touching on racial discrimination, immigration, LGBTQ+ relationships, mental health, and sexual assault and violence.

The developments in Leander follow a national trend, where debates about racism, national identity, and diversity in public schools have become hotly contested. Leander is predominantly white, and the English curriculum adopted last year was developed by professional educators to be diverse and inclusive, to expose students to lives and stories different from their own. But, as we are seeing nationwide, there is resistance to complicating national narratives, diversifying the literary canon, or reckoning with history. In one Tennessee county, for instance, parents have objected to teaching a civil rights history book by none other than Ruby Bridges.

The irony in Leander is that students didn’t have to read the banned books – they were merely available on book club reading lists, among other options. But now, thousands of students in Leander are at risk of being deprived of these choices, opportunities, and stories altogether.

Is this a book ban? The parents who agitated for the books to be removed would surely say no, that their efforts stem from an earnest concern that the material their children were being exposed to was “inappropriate.” But calls to remove books from bookshelves should always raise concerns, no matter their motivation. The American Library Association and other advocates for the freedom to read in schools have long considered such removal campaigns as efforts to ban books from circulation, to effectively disallow and discourage others to read them.

In Leander, the tangible effect will be that students will no longer have easy access to this literature in their schools.

“Removals” of this nature similarly risk sending the message that the titles in question – and the subjects they cover – are off-limits, taboo, or undeserving; the books have been judged, found “controversial,” and punished with mass purging. In Leander the campaign to remove books was carried out with particularly dramatic fanfare, with one person bringing a sex toy to a school board meeting to demonstrate one book’s allegedly obscene content. District leaders’ decision now to remove that book – Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House – appears an implicit acceptance of that one reader’s evaluation. In this sense, the physical books may only be removed from school shelves; but the books’ content is being stigmatized.

This fact is made more concerning by the review process the district concocted, which was touted as engaging the community but has been opaque. After parents complained, the district invited members of the public, teachers, principals, and parents to participate in committees to vote on the fate of each of the 120 books on the reading lists. But those votes did not translate into the final decisions. For ten of the thirteen books slated for removal, more than a majority of the committee members actually voted for them to be kept. For example, 77 percent voted to “keep” Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, 80 percent voted to “keep” Machado’s In the Dream House, and 88 percent voted to “keep” Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. Yet all three titles were removed. In other cases, books were kept on the lists when as few as 43 percent of the committees wanted them, such as for the anthology, How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation edited by Maureen Johnson.

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that district leaders were following an ulterior set of considerations in their final decisions rather than just implementing the will of the committees. Behind closed doors, it’s not hard to imagine that on the heels of community backlash there was a desire to tamp down the potential for further outrage. But the lack of transparency adds to the feeling that many of these books were targeted for removal simply because they had – or could – become the locus of greater tension.

This is what makes what’s happened in Leander an alarming bellwether of the national moment. Across the country school officials are facing high levels of community backlash, and reacting in a knee-jerk fashion – ripping out pages of a high school yearbook in Arkansas, and canceling an eighth grade presentation on Black Lives Matter in New York. Like Leander, these incidents raise grave concerns about students’ freedom to read, write, learn, and speak out.

Parent and community engagement matters in education, but it must not be the only principle that guides schools through our culture war controversies. School leaders need to have a strong commitment to pedagogical principles, and to students’ rights to access literature and learn honest history. In states like Texas, where racial and ethnic diversity is accelerating, considerations of diversity and inclusion must also be part of the equation.

In Leander, it is disheartening to see a robust effort at diversifying curricula be so undermined. None of the “controversial” titles in the book club reading lists were even required reading. But the leaders in the district have upheld the will of some parents over all others. In so doing they risk depriving students of the vast, imaginative, and sometimes-challenging world of literature. Students in the district deserve better.

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Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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