Books Are Being Banned Across the Country. What’s Really at Stake?
I do not enjoy pumpkin spice lattes. I know this seems off topic, but go with me here for a minute.
I don’t understand who hates coffee this much.
I cannot overstate how much olfactory offense I take whenever this cloying combination of sweet spice mixed with the pungent bitterness of coffee wafts over the autumnal scent of rotting leaves, smashed gourds, and old candy.
But, as much as I loathe—and I do loathe it with the power of a thousand white hot suns—I have never considered it my job, my duty, my place, nor my responsibility to stop anyone else from drinking them. I have never stood outside a Starbucks and knocked cups of pumpkin spice lattes out of people’s hands as they stream out drinking their piping hot cup of abomination.
Instead—and I know this is going to sound wild, so you might want to sit down for a second—I do not order nor do I drink pumpkin spice lattes.
That’s it. That’s the extent of my action. I do not like them, so I do not imbibe them. If someone asks me if I recommend that they try a pumpkin spice latte—I might howl about the indignity of it all but I am not going to stand in their way.
So why do I mention pumpkin spice lattes?
Well, firstly, it is that season.
Secondly, in a lot of ways pumpkin spice lattes are a lot like books about topics, histories, subjects, and ideas that individuals may not like. There are lots of books. Some are poorly written or have plots that drag and unimaginative characters. Some are filled with racist, sexist, or ableist representations. There are also books that possess a magic that allows readers to explore ideas, events, realities, and experiences outside themselves. And there are books that allow us to see ourselves—perhaps for the first time—and make us feel seen and loved and worthy. Some books even scare us—as readers, as children, as adults.
All of these books deserve to exist. They deserve to be read, critically examined, discussed, and evaluated. But that isn’t what is happening. There is a distinct subset of books that are being challenged and banned. They are being taken off shelves in libraries and out of classrooms. They are being taken out of the hands of students who are trying to figure out the world.
The books that are being removed are overwhelmingly by and about marginalized individuals and communities. These books are stories and experiences told by those who have had their histories erased, voices stolen, and beauty denied. They center a reality that frightens and intimidates those who are accustomed to power and privilege. Here are some examples:
- The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali, about a young woman deciding to wear hijab and the ways choices affect and influence those around us
- For historical contexts of racial segregation in American history, Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, Gwen Strauss, and Floyd Cooper, along with Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatium
- For ways of seeing the multiplicity of the LGBTQIA+ community (and who doesn’t love PENGUINS!!!) read and Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole, along with Melissa by Alex Gino
- Finally, for a big dose of triumph in worlds that are not meant to love and support marginalized people, enjoy Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid, Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison’s Sulwe, and Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal’s Fry Bread
There are literally hundreds of books being banned and challenged in schools across the country—in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Texas, Rhode Island, Virginia, and all points in between. The “anti-Critical Race Theory” movement is coming for books written by and about marginalized people. The books being removed from shelves and challenged by community members are books about love, trauma, blame, joy, mystery, and pride that do not center the White, male, cis, straight, able, Christian, middle class experience that has, for far too long, been the normative lens for story telling in education.
The folks who are afraid of seeing histories also fear recognizing our present. We are a country that is on the cusp of having no clear racial majority. We are a county that must grapple with our past in order to have a future that includes all of us.
Maybe that is the difference between pumpkin spice lattes and books about marginalized histories, people, and events.
I do not fear a pumpkin spice latte.
Laura M. Jiménez is BU Wheelock’s associate dean of diversity, equity & inclusion, and a senior lecturer in BU Wheelock’s Language & Literacy Department.