As Book Bans Increase Across the Country a BU Scholar Is Fighting Back
As Book Bans Increase across the Country, a BU Scholar Is Fighting Back
Wheelock’s Christina Dobbs is providing teachers with ammunition to continue teaching controversial titles
A burgeoning Borg of book banners continues to scrub titles on race and gender orientation from schools. BU’s Christina Dobbs is contributing to an online armory to fight back.
Dobbs, a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development assistant professor and director of its English Education for Equity & Justice program, is on the Standing Committee Against Censorship of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). She contributes to This Story Matters, an information database created by NCTE that gives teachers pedagogical justification for teaching hundreds of controversial books.
She has her work cut out for her. In the 12 months through June 2022, 1,648 books were banned in 138 school districts across 32 states, according to the writer’s group PEN America. The most cited objection, affecting 41 percent of titles, condemned books that “explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+,” PEN wrote. And 40 percent of titles “contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.” Texas has banned the most books, followed by Florida, with support from their Republican governors, Texas’ Greg Abbott, and Florida’s Ron DeSantis.
Book-ban advocates say they are defending parents’ say in what their children read and that some of the objectionable books are pornography. Yet targeted titles include acclaimed works: William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner; Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which won the 2015 National Book Award; The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood; The Bluest Eye, by Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison; The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas; and Fences, the August Wilson (Hon.’96) play that, like Nat Turner, won the Pulitzer Prize. Nonfiction, such as They Called Themselves the K.K.K. by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, has also been banned in some locales.
The United States has had similar spasms of censoriousness before, from the 1920s drive to have books “Banned in Boston” to Senator Joe McCarthy’s 1950s effort to purge federal libraries of supposedly subversive volumes. Dobbs discussed her activism with BU Today.
This interview has been edited for length.
With Christina Dobbs
BU Today: What is This Story Matters?
Dobbs: We call them “book rationales.” We choose books either because they have been challenged or because we think they might be, and we have lots of volunteers. We write these rationales for books. Our format has a bunch of questions. What is this book about? Who is it written by? If it’s won any awards, what are they? If people have taught this book, are there any resources to think about how you might do that, or how you might talk about some of these issues? You think about reasons [people] might give for challenging [a book], or have given. The purpose is, if a book is challenged, teachers could go to the database, download the rationale, and have tools to participate in the conversation about that book and its potential value.
There are different kinds of censorship. There is out-and-out censorship: I think this book should be removed from any space where students are—library, curriculum, everywhere. There’s also: I want this book removed from the curriculum; it’s OK if it’s in the library, but we shouldn’t teach it. Then there is “red-flagging”—we might make this book available, but it’s going to be in a special location, and you have to have parent permission to get it, or something like that. Red-flagging is challenging, because it is a way of censorship that is complicated. If a student is questioning their sexuality, it might be too much for them to go to the librarian and have a conversation. In a way, it does not let students choose what they would like to read.
BU Today: Some opposed to book bans say that books with certain topics, particularly sexuality and about those who might be gender-uncertain, could be age-appropriate for some students, but you wouldn’t want younger children to get them.
Dobbs: Parents should and can have a say in what kinds of texts students have. Where we draw a line is, a parent can decide for their own child what to read and when things are appropriate, but I don’t think that any parent ought to decide for all children.
Teachers, librarians, and school staff are professionals who have training in questions of developmental appropriateness and can use their professional judgment, in terms of what they read as a group and what they encourage individual students to read. I, as a teacher, would take my students to the library; if I know my students well, I can make suggestions for them. I have occasionally said to a student, You know what? That book might feel a little dark for you or go into areas you don’t want to go in the middle of class, when we’re reading together.
What we’re talking about is something very different, where parents are saying, I don’t think this book should be available to any child anywhere for any reason. At the [NCTE] conference before Thanksgiving, I sat with a person [who] was saying, “Do you have a rationale for To Kill a Mockingbird?” To Kill a Mockingbird is not a controversial pick; almost everyone reads it across their schooling, and some read it in middle school. And a group of people are working to ban it. There has long been a discourse about the main character’s gender identity, [but] I have heard of it being challenged because of the race discussion in other places.
So we are talking about things that have historically been quite widely accepted being challenged in a lot of places. I know people who think we shouldn’t teach To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s out-of-date and a white-savior story. Books are rightly critiqued for that, [but] I don’t think those books should be censored, either. I don’t think students learn to become critical readers by never being presented anything to be critical of.
There are books I would not choose [to teach]. I personally might not choose Huckleberry Finn at this moment in time; I’m not sure what is gained is worth the potential harm that might come to students from having that discussion in class. [Critics object to the frequent use of the n-word and the childish nature of the African American character Jim.] But I’m not trying to challenge it or say that it shouldn’t be in the library. That is a real difference [with book banners].
BU Today: What book rationales have you written?
Dobbs: I wrote a rationale for Gender Queer, which is one of the most banned and challenged books in the United States. I’ve done a few others—All Boys Aren’t Blue. I’m working on The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. One of the complaints is that it’s not in the canon.
BU Today: That sounds like a fig leaf. What’s the real objection?
Dobbs: It has some tough stuff [including incestuous rape]. And it’s about race. “It’s not in the canon” I find fascinating as a way to not talk about people’s real reasons. It’s like Maus getting banned in Tennessee because the mice are not wearing pants. There is a purpose for them not to be wearing clothing in a particular scene, but the naked-mice argument is a straw man to avoid saying, we don’t want to talk about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.
BU Today: Given these burgeoning conservative groups, can you beat such a concerted effort?
Dobbs: I’m not an optimistic person by nature. But if I were going to bet on anybody, it would be teachers, who tend to be the group that has less funding, not as much support as they deserve. And they continue to make a difference in these sorts of cases. I wouldn’t bet against ’em. I think it’s too soon to say.
Think about this the next time you hear conservatives whining about being “cancelled” or “free speech.” Conservatives are the OG cancellers, and they’ve never cared about free speech for everyone, just for themselves. Burning books? Our country is becoming a neofascist hellhole more and more every year.
Thank you, Professor Christina Dobbs! Professor Dobbs’ continual work in helping us understand the equity issues related to literature, the role of publishers and book bans is remarkable and unwavering, It is this type of work that helps the proverbial arc of the moral universe to bend towards justice.