By Ben Jealous
(Trice Edney Wire) – Truth is a threat to authoritarianism. Reading is a path to truth. This is why the freedom to read is essential to the freedom to learn. And that is why the freedom to learn is often attacked by those who abuse power and those who cling to it.
Each year, the American Library Association and partner organizations observe Banned Books Week to highlight and ward off these threats. This year’s Banned Books Week runs from September 18-24 amid a wave of book bans and other attempts to restrict what people can learn.
These efforts have a long and disreputable history.
Before the Civil War, many slave states made it a crime to teach slaves to read. Slave owners feared that being able to read could help slaves win their freedom or organize rebellions. In Virginia, a judge could order that any slave or free person of color caught learning to read or write be whipped.
Today, attacking freedom to read is again a political strategy for those seeking to gain and retain power. And again, blacks are a priority target.
State legislators and governors are making it illegal to honestly teach about the history and reality of racism in our country. Far-right activists are trying to purge schools and libraries of books featuring black people, LGBTQ people and others they deem unworthy of student attention.
The MAGA movement’s attacks on the teaching of racism and sexuality have led to what the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has called an “astronomical” increase in challenges to the books.
That’s why the annual celebration of freedom to read, Banned Books Week, is particularly meaningful this year. In addition to the librarians, authors, booksellers, teachers and other anti-censorship activists who lead Banned Book Week activities, we all have a role to play in ensuring that the voices of our communities are not silenced.
Books by and about black and other people of color — and by and about LGBTQ people — dominate the ALA’s annual list of most frequently challenged books. This year’s honorary chair, George Johnson, is an award-winning black author whose ‘All Boys Aren’t Blue’ topped the list of most contested books last year, along with others dealing with racism, racial identity and sexuality.
“It’s a fight for the truth that has always existed even though it’s rarely said,” Johnson says. “When young people are empowered with stories about the experiences of others, they grow into adults who understand the need for fairness and equality and have the tools to build a world like we’ve never seen.”
But far-right activists tell parents that words like “fairness” are the code of Marxism and something they should fight. Trump’s Republicans are encouraging MAGA activists to take control of their school boards by running “critical race theory” propaganda campaigns. Trumpish state lawmakers are introducing laws to make it illegal to teach anything that would make white students “uncomfortable.” A Texas lawmaker asked schools for information on 850 books he thought were suspicious; his list included works on history and human rights. In Virginia, Governor Glenn Youngkin has set up an email hotline for people to report teachers suspected of “dividing” practices.
Books targeted in the current war on truth include a memoir by Ruby Bridges, which tells the true story of her march through angry mobs when she was six and became the first black student to attend an elementary school in New Orleans which had previously banned non-white students.
It is an important part of our history. We cannot build a future together if we are unwilling to honestly face the truth about our past and our present.
Banned Books Week is a good time to pledge to defend the freedom to read, teach and learn about our history – and to oppose those who want to make the teaching of this history illegal or prevent educators to do so without being smeared and harassed.
Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way and professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. A New York Times bestselling author, his next book “Never forget that our people have always been free” will be published by Harper Collins in December 2022