A recent report indicated that the United States has an exponentiating number of book bans. Over 2,500 books are banned across 138 school districts; 1,648 unique book titles are barred from being taught in classrooms and/or checked-out from school libraries. The national coordination of book bans is about more than books, it is banning exposure. It bans marginalized students’ opportunities to see themselves. It bans all students’ exposure to understanding others. It puts a ban on our ability to build a more just society.
Books allow students to explore and empower their identities. They were central to my sense of self, as a young Black girl growing up in Texas. I vividly remember reading books in my elementary school class, such as Color me Brown, and discovering library books in high school, such as the Souls of Black Folk and Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria. It was through these texts that I discovered the possibilities of being Black in America and the racist structures that impacted my community. These books provided a frame of understanding that my story could be central, that my thoughts and curiosity are worthy of inquiry, and that Black history is pivotal to the foundations of the nation and world.
The empowerment, curiosity, and knowledge of the importance of Black thought galvanized my scholarly pursuits from kindergarten through my doctorate in Sociology at New York University and now as part of the 4 percent of Black professors at University of Texas. The importance of books for students’ understanding of others was revealed in one of my recent courses. While introducing the topic of racial and gender disparities in school discipline, I discussed Black students being suspended from school due to their natural hair styles. We talked about DeAndre Arnold and potential shifts in Texas policies regarding Black hair discrimination in schools and employment. After the introduction, students stared at me with confusion (all except for the two Black students who told me this was one of few moments they felt fully reflected in a university classroom).
Later conversations revealed that most of my students had never been exposed to or considered the racial politics of Black beauty and its connections to assumptions about Black youth criminality and the larger criminal legal system. Importantly, these themes are central in commonly banned books, such as “The Hate You Give”, “The Bluest Eye”, and “The New Jim Crow.” Students’ limited exposure inhibited our ability to dive deeper into the course topic and for students to understand the nuances of some of their classmates’ experiences. Exposure to differences through books is imperative, within our racially and economically segregated school systems. Even with the potentially globalizing experiences of the internet, social media often is a bi-furcating echo-chamber where students hear similar viewpoints as their own. Books are some students only contact with other cultures.
To be sure, all books are not appropriate for every age group. We may not want to introduce a kindergartener to understanding racism and sexual violence through reading All Boys are Blue. However, books addressing sexism, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia head on and making students feel uncomfortable does not a justify a book ban. It is through exposure to the uncomfortable that we, as individuals, grow and learn and we, as a society, become more just. What is on the line with book bans is not about aesthetics. What is on the line is students, as our future legislators, teachers, business owners and voters, having an expanded perspective to dismantle social inequalities.