Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina who writes for McClatchy and the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m an adult stutterer. When I was young, my stutter was so severe it was hard to verbally put together back-to-back sentences. I felt silenced. It was books that rescued me, gave me voice, even books that a person like me – a Black dude who grew up in poverty in the shadow of Jim Crow in the Deep South – supposedly might not connect with. But Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” allowed me to peek into worlds I never dreamed of, opening up my imagination in a way that’s been foundational for my writing and teaching pursuits as an author and college professor.
I would not have found that book had it not been for my mother or one of my older siblings who picked it up at a book give-away and left it on the floor in the living room, where I noticed it lying there and picked it up. That’s why efforts to ban books, or reduce the number of people who might stumble unexpectedly into a book they didn’t know could change their life, is profoundly harmful – especially for children who grew up with few resources, the way I did.
And there are folks like my wife, whose life was transformed at an elementary school book fair by “Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale,” a story written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon – about an African legend about what happens after a mosquito lies to an iguana. Its cover illustration spoke to her, a little black girl in South Carolina public schools growing up in the shadow of plantations where our ancestors toiled as enslaved laborers. It helped her to feel better connected to ancestors in Africa, whose lives we hardly saw in our school-mandated history books. She went on to found a literacy non-profit that helps kids build their own in-home libraries.
But today, for kids like us – the ones whose lives can truly be changed by an unexpected encounter with books – connecting with that magic is getting unnecessarily harder.
That’s in part because of things like the absurd claim that, according to some parents, seahorses are way too sexual to be introduced to impressionable young minds. And because other parents have problems with books about Anne Frank and civil rights icon Ruby Bridges. Now even Jesus has been dragged into this mess.
This is what happens when you open Pandora’s box of book bans and laws targeting journalistic endeavors conservatives and their enablers don’t like. No figure, no subject, is exempt. According to PEN America, state legislative proposals to restrict the freedom to learn and teach have increased by 250% in 2022 compared to last year. The US isn’t Saudi Arabia, which recently gave a woman a 34-year-prison-sentence for tweeting. But make no mistake. This parade of inanities will carry on, trampling much that’s good about this country, if we don’t decide – now – to doggedly confront it at every turn. The beginning of a new school year is a good time to make that commitment.
While book bans and censorship laws have long been with us, what we are experiencing is “unprecedented in its scale,” according to Jonathan Friedman of PEN America. During a nine-month period between July of 2021 and March of this year, there were nearly 1,600 books targeted. Books with themes concerning race, racism, sexual orientation and gender identity were the primary targets of, for instance, misguided parents in Tennessee who went after children’s books about Bridges and Chris Butterworth’s “Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea.”
The Bridges story, about the civil rights icon’s journey as one of the first elementary-age black girls to integrate a school against the wishes of angry groups of White people, might make White children today feel bad, the Tennessee parents claimed, while “Sea Horse” was supposedly too sexual because of a scene in that children’s book about sea horses wrapping legs around each other.
In Texas, officials in a school district near Fort Worth directed school staff and librarians to temporarily remove books – including the Christian Bible and an illustrated adaptation of Frank’s diary – that have been challenged through the district’s formal complaint process, which allows parents, employees and district residents to file objections or challenges to books and instructional materials used in schools. This is why you don’t open Pandora’s box. In such an environment, a lone irate parent can force a book to be at least temporarily removed from library shelves.
A committee then reviews and decides whether that material will remain in schools. In a statement, the district said that books “that meet the new guidelines will be returned to the libraries as soon as it is confirmed they comply with the new policy.”
This latest moral panic kicked into overdrive in 2019 after objections to The 1619 Project, published in the New York Times Magazine during the 400th anniversary of the beginning of chattel slavery in what would become the United States of America, touched off a frenzy of propaganda. Over the past four years, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the project, has come under relentless assault by those upset she dared tell a fuller story about how this country came to be – detailing the central role played by African Americans and tracking the legacy of slavery – instead of the watered-down version most of us were fed when we were kids.
That and backlash to the unprecedented protests after the murder of George Floyd have caused otherwise intelligent people to lose their ever-living minds. Not all of the calls for censorship are initiated by conservatives, though it’s clear they are at the forefront of this censorship spike. Given that many of them are Christians, maybe watching their Bible in the crosshairs will awaken them to the farcicality of it all. Maybe they’ll join the rest of us and remember the power and importance of books, even the ones we think dangerous – especially the ones we think dangerous.
Jesus was persecuted because he was out of step with the times, daring to visit and love the undesirables, those pushed to the margins of society, spat on, deemed treacherous. He was executed because he challenged those in power who thought themselves more pious than everyone else, as though their views, their comforts and customs, were sacrosanct, that anyone who dared see things differently weren’t worthy fellow human beings to be debated or better understood, but eliminated.
How ironic, then, is it that people who say they want to emulate Jesus are the ones leading efforts to ban books and journalistic works that are designed to uplift the hopeless, to think of the forgotten, to right wrongs? I, too, am a Christian. I, too, want to emulate Jesus. That’s why it saddens me that so many I call brothers and sisters in Christ, such as those in red states heavily populated with Christians, like my native South Carolina, aren’t standing against but rather fueling this foolishness.
Books about gender, sexual orientation, race and racism have been most frequently targeted. The Christian Bible receiving similar treatment is a kind of poetic justice. I suspect the conservatives and Christians who have been supporting book bans did not want the Bible to be challenged this way, by an unknown parent who may really object to it or was simply trying to make a point. Either way, it underscores why book bans are wrongheaded. They never stop with only the “right” books being eliminated.
It also makes plain why we must push back – and hard – against these bans. Some people have begun doing just that. A librarian in Louisiana is fighting off attempts by conservatives in Livingston Parish to ban books there. Hannah-Jones wisely doubled down on her historic work, first turning the magazine project into a book and a podcast and now having it serve as a foundation for a course at Howard University that should have those of us who value great journalism and robust free expression salivating.
Get our free weekly newsletter
But you don’t have to file lawsuits or create innovative college journalism programs to push back. Maybe you can organize a book fair or two. My wife and her organization are considering doing just that. She won’t forget how giddy she felt as a little girl walking out of a fair amazed that “they give you these for free?!”
A book about mosquitos she happened upon at a book fair changed her life. Maybe a book about sea horses at a fair you organize might transform a kid today forever.