GOP book bans are targeting Race, LGBT+ and U.S. History

There are stories nearly every day now from somewhere in the U.S. Schools and libraries are banning books. School boards are debating what books can be allowed in classrooms. This past week it was Mississippi, Arizona, and Tennessee.

The template is Texas, where parents and others can report books that should be pulled from the shelves for content — notably LGBT+ and racial content.

Some of these book banning stories are local, others are statewide, but the trend is very much national. And while much of the book banning has been in traditionally red states, suburban school boards everywhere are seeing these questions raised, particularly as a focal point for the 2022 midterms, as PGN previously reported.

On January 10, the McMinn County, Tennessee school board voted to ban “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from being taught in its classrooms and to remove the book from the eighth-grade curriculum. Author Art Spiegelman called the ban “Orwellian.” Discussion of it led to a debate about the Holocaust on “The View,” which ended in co-host Whoopi Goldberg being suspended for two weeks.

On January 27. Mayor Gene McGee of Ridgeland, Mississippi, withheld $110,000 in funding from the Madison County Library System, which is all of the first-quarter funds that the city owes to the county’s library program. McGee is opposed to what he calls “homosexual materials” in the local library and said he would not release the funds until they were removed.

In Arizona, amid a series of anti-LGBT+ bills proposed in the legislature, is a bill that would ban so-called Critical Race Theory education.

In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott proffered a “Parental Bill of Rights,” which states that parents get to determine what their children are taught in schools. Back in November, Abbott had declared a “war on pornography” in public schools, which, while non-specific, seemed to include all — and solely — LGBT+ books.

Just prior to Abbott’s declaration, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee, queried the Texas Education Agency over his concerns that books in Texas schools were allowing subversive discourse on race, sexuality and gender identity. Attached to his letter to the TEA was a 16-page list of 850 book titles published from 1969 to 2021 that deal with issues of race, gender identity and sexuality.

An analysis from The Dallas Morning News revealed that “of the first 100 titles listed, 97 were written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors.” 

For decades LGBT+ books have been under attack in schools. In 2014, when lesbian writer Nancy Garden died, her book “Annie on My Mind,” a tale of teen lesbian lovers, was still among the most challenged and banned books in school libraries and had been for decades, since its first publication in 1982. 

Currently among the most banned books are LGBT+ books depicting individuals who are comfortable with their identities and sexual orientations, like “George,” written by Alex Gino, about a 10-year-old trans girl who yearns to be Charlotte, of “Charlotte’s Web.” That book is viewed as inculcating young children.

But on many lists of banned books are novels considered American classics like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Alice Walker’s lesbian love story, “The Color Purple.” Both books won the Pulitzer Prize and both have been made into award-winning films. Those two books, as well as Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Gino’s “George,” and Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’ “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” are all on the current list of top ten most challenged and banned books.  

While there have always been challenges in schools to books about sexuality and racial identity, the current debates are narrowly focused and derive specifically from right-wing Republican politicians. Folded into the fight over books is that issue of Critical Race Theory which proposes an accurate rendering of American history in which slavery and Jim Crow-era treatment of Black Americans is depicted in all its cruelty and also its breadth. The economies of all the slave states were dependent on maintaining slavery and it was the core reason for the Civil War. 

That historical accuracy is contested by many GOP electeds, including Abbott. Books from notable Black authors including Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah Jones and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as notable Black gay writer James Baldwin are on the Texas list, among others.

Nikole Hannah Jones, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, wrote a long thread on Twitter on MLK Day that she had been nearly disinvited from giving a speech about Dr. King because her controversial and Pulitzer-winning work “The 1619 Project” was not, she recounted, in keeping with the tone of King’s message. Hannah Jones took excerpts from King’s own works, substituting only the word “Black” for “Negro” and delivered her speech — only revealing at the end the subterfuge which clarified how King’s message was exactly like her own. The exercise clarified just how skewed perspective has become through the new censoring lens.

According to Pew Research Center, the U.S. is now undergoing the biggest challenge to books being taught in schools in decades. The New York Times reports that “Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an ‘unprecedented’ 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, last fall.

Inquirer columnist Will Bunch calls the bans on race and LGBT+ books McCarthyism, writing on Jan. 27 that “Education experts say a flood of new laws and proposals to curb discussions of racial and LGBTQ issues is worst classroom scare since Scopes Monkey Trial.” 

Bunch noted that, “This right-wing freak-out over what they claim is children becoming indoctrinated with ideas about racism or homophobia feels like a new McCarthyism.”

Laurie Halse Anderson, whose young adult books about sexual assault have been challenged, told the New York Times, “By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.”

This is especially true for queer and trans youth who already face disproportionate bullying at school and online.

Tiffany Justice, a former school board member in Indian River County, Florida and a founder of Moms for Liberty, told the Times, “There are different stages of development of sexuality in our lives, and when that’s disrupted, it can have horrible long-term effects.”

But, she added, “2022 will be a year of the parent at the ballot box.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.