Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind. – Toni Morrison
Books tell our stories. And when our stories are banned, our truths are hidden from one another and our ability to understand each other’s life experiences and perspectives is blocked. It is a violation of the foundation of a free society, our first amendment, freedom of speech. Yet every year, new books are banned and challenged in schools and libraries around the world. In fact, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to books, materials, and services in 2020 alone. While some of banned titles have been on various lists for years, like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, many others are routinely challenged. The majority of censured or banned books are generally children’s books and fiction books. However, no list of banned or challenged books would be complete without a smattering of nonfiction titles, usually contested due to themes of political ideology, racial inequalities, and high school appropriateness.
The American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read Statement” points out that a number of private groups and public authorities throughout the country continuously attack our freedom to read by working to remove or limit access to reading materials. The actions are not singular, but by censoring content in schools, labeling controversial views, distributing lists of books they deem objectionable, and purging libraries, they give rise to a view that, “our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals.”
Just as our political and community landscapes have changed, the reasons for challenging titles has shifted too. In the early 90’s it was often titles with “objectionable” language and sexual content that topped the lists. However, James LaRue, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom was quoted in TIME Magazine as saying that there’s been a shift toward seeking to ban books “focused on issues of diversity—things that are by or about people of color, or LGBT, or disabilities, or religious and cultural minorities.”
A phenomenal book was recently brought to our attention, and recent actions have shown that some believe it falls in the “controversial” category, Vanguard – How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. The author Martha S. Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in The Washington Post that the Lafayette Parish library board rejected a previously offered grant and refused to host a discussion on voting rights that included her book. Jones wrote, “What precisely troubled the board? Vanguard foregrounds the Black women who, for 200-plus years, struggled to expand access to political rights for all. It argues that they are among the architects of American democracy.”
First of all, Vanguard isn’t stirring up controversy, it is a thoroughly researched and critically acclaimed retelling of the history of suffrage in America, and truly a must-read. It is a look at the vibrant history and struggle of the women who have come before us and paved the way for all women to move forward. Winner of the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prize for History, Vanguard is an “examination of the racism and sexism Black women endured in their pursuit of political participation and power. It also closely examines how Black women used that power to secure equality and representation for others, arguing that Black women have been wrongfully overlooked as forebears of democratic ideals in America.”
Jones offers readers a slice of history we may not (yet) be familiar with and introduces us to a number of formidable women. She shares their stories, their struggles and their wins, and helps reshape our perceptions in the process. Ibram X. Kendi says that “all Americans would be better off learning this history” and I couldn’t agree more. We don’t need to limit access to her book or discussions of topics some may find uncomfortable or “objectionable.” We need to make sure all of our stories – and the stories of those who came before us – are told.
The books that take us out of our own experience, those that educate, engage, and inspire us are often targeted and will probably continue to be banned in pockets of our country. Thankfully, in a majority of the cases, those books are still available thanks to librarians, teachers, students, community members, and the women and men that still demand access to the stories that shape us as a people, a nation, and a world. But we must all continue to speak up and demand it because as Jones says in her article, “People forget that history is not merely a recounting of past events but also a battle over who writes it, from which perspective and what those stories teach about who we are as a nation.”