Saturday, January 29, 2022

Liberals Must Be Clear About What it Means to Ban Books

These days there's no shortage of stories like this one from Florida in the news.

Sixteen books have been removed from school library shelves after a local group determined they were “inappropriate” and contained “obscene material.”

This developed amid a “dramatic uptick” in challenges to books involving racial and LGBTQ issues, according to the American Library Association.

The books include The Kite Runner, written by an author from Afghanistan, and two books written by Toni Morrison, an acclaimed African-American author.

That is a classic case of book banning.

But the big story from this week is the one about a school district in Tennessee. 

A Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust has been banned by a Tennessee school district, prompting blowback from critics who say it's essential to teach children about the genocide.

The 10-member McMinn County School Board voted unanimously earlier this month to remove Maus from its curriculum and replace it with an alternative, which hadn't been decided at the time of the vote.

While we should challenge this decision on its merits, the question we should all be asking is whether removing a book from a school's curriculum is the same as banning a book. It clearly isn't. 

Teachers and schools must upgrade the material used in their curriculums all the time. That is especially true when it comes to teaching children about race and gender. If you doubt that, just take a look at what Garrett Epps wrote about what he was taught growing up in Virginia schools.

Just as the McMinn County School Board was removing "Maus" from their curriculum, the Mukilteo School District in Washington was removing "To Kill a Mockingbird" from theirs.

Late Monday, the school board voted unanimously that “To Kill a Mockingbird” should not be mandatory reading for ninth graders...

It is the first time in about 25 years a request was made to the board to remove a book from the curriculum. High school English teachers Verena Kuzmany, Riley Gaggero and Rachel Johnson asked for the removal in September, citing the novel “celebrates white saviorhood,” “marginalizes characters of color” and “uses the ‘n’ word almost 50 times.”

Here's where context matters. In the Mukilteo School District, each grade has one book that is required reading. For 9th graders, that book has been "To Kill a Mockingbird." But it's time for an update. Similar actions on that particular book have been taken from Burbank, California to Biloxi, Mississippi. In none of those school districts has "To Kill a Mockingbird" been banned (ie, removed from the library) and in most places it is still on approved lists for teachers to use. It is simply no longer required reading for every student. 

Burbank Superintendant Matt Hill asked the pertinent questions: "Do we have books that represent, not just white authors, or do we have people of color authors of multiple races and backgrounds? Do we have a diverse set of books that our students can access?" Those are the kinds of adjustments schools have been in the process of making - ensuring that students get exposed to a diversity of authors. There is no shortage of classics that fit that description. 

If we aren't clear that these kinds of updates or changes to curriculum are very different from attempts to actually ban books, we confuse the issue and open the door to bothsiderism, ie, both liberals and conservatives want to ban books. That would be a lie. 


  1. Curricula change all the time, certainly with each generation. I wouldn't wish the books I had to read in junior high, mostly whatever grow-up middlebrow was deemed accessible to kids, on students today. But that's so obvious we shouldn't have to mention it.

    And in fact I am not convinced the new outcry is overlooking this either Is removing books from the curriculum really the same as removing them from library shelves? The latter would seem to take a far stronger excuse than "we do it all the time" not to count as book banning.

    Let's bear in mind, too, that however often curricula change people, liberals included, have every right to object. Removing books to protect young minds has long been objectionable and a laughing stock, and doing so because white Protestant feelings are hurt won't cut it either. So now, I think this post's targeting of liberal bothsiderism isn't playing fair and square.

    1. I'll have to assume that you haven't seen all of the references to book banning in the case of Maus and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are examples of removing books from curriculum, not library shelves.

      In the case of Maus, as I stated, it is important to challenge the decision on its merits, not as a book banning.

    2. Apologies. I didn't overlook the fate of Maus and To Kill, which (as you say) very much must be challenged. But I did, in your grouping these with your opening, overlook you're saying that the removal from shelves is book banning. It's perhaps unfortunate that this opening leads then to the qualms about liberal reactions that's your main story, but there we'd just be quarreling over rhetoric, and you should write a post as you see fit, where you're a fine writer.

  2. ...the question we should all be asking is whether removing a book from a school's curriculum is the same as banning a book. It clearly isn't.

    In a statement, the McMinn County BoE said it "voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools."

    That sounds sweeping to me, more than the kind of update to curriculum that happens regularly. I take it to mean the book is not allowed in classrooms or school libraries. The NPR story at the link calls it a "ban." So does virtually every other news report covering the story.

    Unless there's a story I missed saying the book is still allowed in school libraries and classrooms, I would call it a book ban. I do not think what's happening with "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a book ban. That's an important distinction. Any teacher or student is still free to teach/study that book if desired.

    In regard to whether school districts have authority to remove books, they almost always do. The one SCOTUS decision (Pico) about school bans says adding a book and removing a book are not equivalent. Removing a book requires a legit reason, not just the whim or taste of school officials. But almost always they will find cause even when whim or taste is what drives the decision.

    So if a school district wants to remove a book about the Holocaust or American slavery because, say, it doesn't want to make Nazis or other fine white folks in the community uncomfortable, that is contrary to the Supreme Court's decision. They need a better reason. So they will find profanity or nudity (even a cartoon nude female mouse!) and say that is inappropriate for children to read. Never mind that no one objects to children reading about the murder of six million Jews. That horror seems to be age-appropriate for McMinn County kids.

    Book bans and related decisions involve a number of actors: teachers, librarians, school board members, local pols, and parents. Usually parent complaints are driving the changes, and what motivates the complaints is often left out of the story. They may be part of a wider, more organized effort to whitewash history and literature in service of a political agenda. I don't there's any question that frequently the case.

    Some good info in this thread from a prof who teaches about book bans:

    While I agree the recent change of status re "To Kill a Mockingbird" is not a book ban, I have some quibbles with the rationale. I don't think the book is "essential" in any way, or of such outstanding literary merit that it must be taught. (James Baldwin would be a better choice.) It's a good book and useful for an audience that is less prevalent today than when it was written. But the complaint in a story that I saw was its repeated use of the n-word by a white author. That implies the use of the word by a Black author could be appropriate, and I (as a writer, among other things) object strongly to the idea that words in a book are appropriate or not appropriate based on the race of who wrote them. Let the content and context of the work be judged for its appropriateness. That is all. That may not be in keeping with the recent prevailing liberal thought on the subject, and if so, I object. I'll assume there were other reasons for the change. I probably would agree with (some of) them.

    1. I read several articles about what happened in McMinn County and every one of them - like the NPR article - referred to it as a banning and then said the book was removed from the curriculum. That's what got me curious. The tweet you linked to w/ the statement from the board is a bit more clear. So thanks for that.

      On use of the "N" word, I recommend listening to what Ta-Nehisi Coates said about that:

    2. "Words don't have meaning without context." That's what Coates says and I agree. In fact, that's what I said above. Judge the use of the word by the content and context of the work.

      When he gives examples of how "Honey" and "Bitch" would be inappropriate in some contexts, he's right, of course, and that's why white people should not be using the n-word to refer to Black people.

      But that's not what Harper Lee is doing. She is an artist dramatizing the world of the Jim Crow South during the Depression. It is the characters in that story using the word just as the people of that time and place used that word. If the purpose of fiction is to depict the truth about people, including the pain that people inflict and the pain that people suffer, it may be appropriate for the writer to use painful language. That should be true for writers such as Harper Lee and William Faulkner as it is for James Baldwin and Colson Whitehead.

      My memory of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is not that strong, and I wouldn't try to defend how well Lee succeeds in depicting the truth of the time or to defend every use of the word. But my son read the book last year (age 14-15), and white characters' casual use of the hateful and dehumanizing n-word likely had a more powerful effect depicting the horror of that time than if the word were verboten. Likewise, I just read "The Nickel Boys" and am now reading "The Underground Railroad," and it's hard to see how the truth of the stories would be improved by removing the word.

      The true horrors in these books are how Black people are treated. It feels odd that authors' liberty to depict those horrors seems to be accepted but the names people are called is the main objection.

  3. Nancy, thank you for saying this out loud. There are so many stories and books that use socially "inappropriate" language for either local language descriptions or effect, that I fear even listing them might get them banned somewhere. What are we to do with Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Steinbeck, and Mark Twain, all of whom use those racial epithets that offend so many yet teach us much more? I hope we are willing to follow the advice of our mutually-admired writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and let context prevail


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