Banning books won’t erase modern realities

Intellectual freedom is at the bottom of the story of banned books – but bigotry and ignorance are at the center

Aliya Gibbons, Staff Writer

In my junior year of high school, I read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. In the middle of the book, the narrator, a handmaid named Offred–a captive of sorts, used for solely child-bearing purposes–is invited into the private office of her commander. When she enters the study, she marvels at the books: “All around the walls, there are bookcases. They’re filled with books. Books and books and books, right out in plain view. No locks, no boxes. No wonder we can’t come in here. It’s an oasis of forbidden. I try not to stare.”
Recent laws passed by legislatures in Florida (Stop WOKE Act, Parental Rights in Education Law, a.k.a. “Don’t Say Gay”) and other states have me thinking about the class I took, and the lessons we learned about the potential harm caused by banning books and restricting academic freedom in high schools.
In that same class, a two-year IB Literature course, we read a lot of novels where reading was a symbol of freedom. We watched suppression of literacy as a theme of oppression turn from fictional in “The Handmaid’s Tale” to reality in the graphic memoir “Persepolis,” where Marjane Satrapi watches her education become censored by the shift towards religious extremism in the Iranian government. And in Frederick Douglass’s memoir where he learns to read and write when American slaves were forbidden to do so. Douglass accounts listening to a slaver, Mr. Auld, say “[If you teach a slave to read]…there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.”
The story of banned books in the United States is a story about intellectual and academic freedom, coupled with a story of oppression and regression. Banned books are one of the main concerns of the American Library Association (ALA); they argue that “imposing information restraints on a free people is far more dangerous than any ideas that may be expressed in that information.”
The ALA keeps track of the most banned books. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is high on the list, suggesting that one of the author’s glaring messages was lost on those who ban it.
More often than not, discussions around book banning are about limiting children’s access to certain topics. Parents or politicians hear about books available in classrooms or school libraries and call for their removal, forcing librarians and educators to become defenders of intellectual freedom. While parents are operating under the need to protect their own children, educators are defending the right of every child to learn and read.
Intellectual freedom is at the bottom of the story of banned books – but bigotry and ignorance are at the center. Merely glancing at the names on the ALA’s list of top ten banned books for each year shows that racism and homophobia play a massive role in censoring children’s literature.
In 2021, half of the top ten were banned for LGBTQIA+ content. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas is number five on that list and has been on the list almost every year since it came out.
Despite winning multiple awards and producing a film adaptation that was also highly acclaimed, Thomas’s debut novel has been banned from schools and libraries for profanity and violence, and because it was “thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda.”
The book is really about a 16-year-old girl who navigates racial inequality and tensions after watching her friend die at the hands of a cop. It explores the pressure and danger the police face, along with police brutality, guilt and mourning, and the life of a teenage girl living in a diverse America.
Parents worry that these books give their children a negative understanding of American society. Censoring books that talk about racism doesn’t make us unified; banning these books is what is divisive. It limits the ability to close gaps in understanding other people’s experiences. Censoring books that show the “ugly sides” of America is not preserving unity, it is silencing a reality.
Censoring minority thoughts has always been a trend, but recently it has become much worse. Banned books used to be just about profanity or sexual content, “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” as an example. But increasingly it is about suppressing identities and political viewpoints. Censoring books based on political ideology is society regressing.
In a country where conservative white families are slowly becoming a minority, the rapidly diversifying country can be terrifying for many. There seems to be a need to find a ‘bogeyman’ in the closet, a bad guy to prove that their way of life is coming under attack. But there is no bogeyman, there never has been. Different viewpoints can seem like a threat, but it is a challenge to one’s perspective that should be welcomed.
Looking at the public policies flowing through Florida and to other states shows that there is a completely unfounded moral panic over gender and sexuality. Banning books that contain any level of queer identity is a particular form of cruelty. Books that showcase minority identities aren’t indoctrinating children; these books show them the realities of a diverse America. It shows them the way other people experience the world. It shows them empathy. It shows them it is okay to be themselves. It might even help them understand their own identity better. We shouldn’t take that away from them.
These books are progress. They are essential, and they deserve to have an audience. The children, for their part, deserve to be able to make choices for themselves, to have access to educational material, and to be able to discover. Parents should not be allowed to take the right to intellectual freedom away from anyone else’s children.
“There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”
– Fahrenheit 451