It is no coincidence that the drafters of our founding documents wrote down the ideals that have created our democracy. The freedom and ability to write and read has made and remade nations, inspired and documented resistance, preserved stories of those who are no longer with us, and continues to make us more compassionate, more informed, and more human.
So powerful is the written word, that it was common and widespread practice to prohibit the instruction of reading to enslaved people. Literacy empowered (and empowers) resistance to and liberation from the plantation economy that was foundational to the creation of the nation. In righteous defiance of these restrictions, people who were enslaved including Harriet Jacobs (born in Edenton, North Carolina) and Frederick Douglass, learned to read and write. Their stories about their experiences while enslaved reflect knowledge and history that was forbidden by white supremacist laws and practices. Their stories document the legacies of the nation.
During this Banned Books week, we again sit with the power of the written word and forbidden knowledge. We are in the wake of a massive, nationwide wave of so-called anti-Critical Race Theory legislation that sought to, and in some cases did, ban the teaching of legacies of racism and sexism. In many cases, these bills encouraged only uninformed allegiance rather than informed understanding of the painful complexities of our country. We saw several of these bills introduced in NC's most recent legislative session, which you can read about here.
The threat of censorship and the suppression of knowledge is alive and well today and continues a long legacy of attempting to silence minoritized people. Whether it is literature by Black and Brown and/or LGBTQIA+ authors, books that critique the U.S., or books that represent and explore other systems of government, we stand to learn from our stories, and the stories of those who are nothing like us. We will also learn who we are by resisting the suppression of knowledge that is unfortunately shaping our current cultural moment. In 2021, the American Library Association recorded 729 book challenges, compared to 156 in 2020.
Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a graphic novel about the author’s journey in understanding their gender and sexuality, was named the most challenged book by the American Library Association in 2021. The novel was briefly pulled off Wake County Library shelves. Protests resulted in the Wake Library system reviewing its policies for removing books from circulation. In 2021, several of the most widely challenged books represented and explored LGBTQIA+ themes. As of now, over 240 anti-LGBTQIA bills have been filed across the nation – perhaps if those bills’ sponsors had learned from these books, they’d have chosen to act differently, in support of our shared communities and a more perfect union.
This week, we invite you to review the ALA’s list of books that were most challenged across the country. Consider visiting your local library to check out Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or other texts that have been challenged in libraries and schools to see how these stories can enhance your understanding of our world.