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Chester County Press

Editorial: Empty bookshelves

03/01/2022 12:32PM ● By Richard Gaw

"When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.” – Maya Angelou

In November of 2020, the all-white board for the Central York School District in York, Pennsylvania handed down a list of 300 books, articles and films to the district’s teachers and librarians with an order to remove them from the hands and minds of the district’s students. They included Ibram Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist, books about those in the LGBTQ movement, books for early readers about civil rights heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and even a CNN Sesame Street town hall on racism.

What transpired just a little more than two hours away from Chester County was far from an isolated incident.

The board was not alone in their decision; some parents in the district objected to materials that they feared could be used to make white children feel guilty about their race or “indoctrinate” students.

Over the past year, book banning in the United States has also been witnessed in Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming, and become the equivalent of a scorched-earth diatribe that is yanking challenged books off of the bookshelves of public and school libraries at an alarming rate. Parents are aligning with national organizations like No Left Turn in Education, writing letters to elected officials, speaking at school board meetings and even going so far as to ask if banned books are in their children’s learning curriculum.

While they claim their cause is in the best interests of their children, it has often bordered on the absurd. Last November, a parent confronted the school board in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania with a copy of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, and called for the resignation of the superintendent because the book, whose audiences are intended to be readers from 12 through 18, contained one sexual reference.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov

While parents and national groups are at the core of the movement, it has also become a talking point and campaign promise for conservative politicians wishing to scrape up a few more votes from their constituents. It has also crept its way into our houses of worship, and been set ablaze with matches: Earlier this month, the ultra-conservative pastor Greg Locke organized a book burning of the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas in Tennessee. The event was aimed at stopping the “demonic influences” of the novels – which involve magic and vampires, respectively – from reaching the community’s young readers.

Also in Tennessee, the school board in McMinn County voted to ban Maus, the graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, from the middle school curriculum, because the book contains one scene of nudity and eight curse words.

Of the American Library Association’s Top 10 banned books of 2021, every one has been excoriated for providing LGBTQ content; for conflicting with religious viewpoints; for use of profanity; for sharing political ideologies; for confronting racism; and for containing divisive topics. Most authors are either Black, Indigenous or people of color.

Three of the all-time chestnuts of the banned book movement also appeared on the list: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, for its use of sexually explicit language and depiction of child sexual abuse; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, for its use of racial slurs; and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for its depiction of racist stereotypes.

The censorship of intellectual freedom is not limited to our nation’s current landscape. Just a few months into the regime of Adolf Hitler, a campaign conducted by the German Student Union led to the burning of books in Nazi Germany and Austria in the 1930s. The books tossed on the fires were viewed as being oppressive to the ideology of Nazism, and its authors were Jewish, socialists, anarchists and liberals. They burned them all, books by Albert Einstein and Helen Keller – everything that was not ardent in its support of a cause that would eventually lead to the mass murdering of more than six million Jews.

“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

Should these factions, in all of their overzealousness to dictate the course of their children’s education, be forgiven, for they know not what they do? Hardly; they know exactly what they are doing, and the sin of their censorship is intentional. It is a choke-hold on an individual’s freedom to think critically for himself or herself. It is a force-feeding of inhibition that operates under the guise of protection, perpetuating a climate of fear, rigidity and a false moral ground.

And yet, our public and school libraries do not have enough protective armor and security to hold these self-righteous oppressors back from their appointed purpose to commit cultural genocide.

Indeed, the aim of these warped ideologues is true -- to further spread the seeds of anti-intellectualism until they at last hold the keys to the developing minds of every young person who aspires to figure out the world on his or her own.