Black Joy

“It’s not about the children,” Black writers on the truth behind banned books

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There’s not a banned book list you’ll find without Toni Morrision on it. In 2023, you’ll also seldom find a list without Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue in the top 10. If you take a closer look at these lists you’ll find a pattern: Black, Latinx, Asian, Queer and Trans authors. If your book looks too gay or too ethnic or has anything in the title that indicates it isn’t “white,” rest assured there’s a school board somewhere deciding it’s too obscene.

It’s about the children they say, but it’s not really about the children. It’s about disempowering some children, and “protecting” other children. Maybe, more importantly, it’s about using children as a scapegoat to shield adults from the truth.

Mississippi, the state that ended Roe, and that’s in company with states who have been pushing legislation targeting transgender youth, had its first Banned Book Festival this past weekend. As a place often considered ground zero for the worst of this country, having it here was fitting. It was also, hopefully, just the beginning of authors, readers, parents and students resisting bannings that disproportionately target people of color and Queer folks.

Mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors

When I try to recall the first time I saw myself in a book, things get a bit blurry. As a kid, I was a big fan of Goosebumps or anything that looked weird and scary. But I also loved to scope out my grandmother’s bookshelf, that was where I first discovered Terry McMillan’s Mama, and that was the first time I read characters that felt familiar, like I had met them somewhere before. But there were no children or teen books I can recall with anyone that looked or sounded like me.

Today, that has certainly changed. And unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of pushback to Black and Brown kids finally having books that make them feel seen. But Angie Thomas, Mississippi native and one the most influential young adult writers in the industry right now, refuses to let the pushback deter her or her stories.

During her panel, “Erasing Black Lives,” Thomas shared what it was like finding out her book was banned by a Texas school district:

“I was frustrated. I was hurt . . .I was angry but then it shifted in a new way when I started hearing from young people in that same school district, typically young Black girls who look like me, who told me that they love The Hate You Give . . . [and] that it made them feel heard.”

This is part of the reason Thomas does this work, so that Black children can see themselves and their experiences reflected. That may not seem like it’s asking for too much, but there are many white parents specifically, who somehow see this as a threat to their children.

One recent example is the banning of books (and films) about Ruby Bridges, the true story of a little Black girl integrating public schools. It is one thing to try and restrict fictional stories that makes one uncomfortable, but I think the intent becomes clear when it trickles down to quite literally erasing the stories of real-life human beings. That is to say, the same reason they are banning fictional Black stories is the same reason they don’t want kids learning about folks like Ruby Bridges: they see no value in our very existence.

“They need those windows and sliding glass doors to see lives beyond their home, to see people unlike them who live experiences unlike theirs so they can have some compassion, some empathy. . .”

—  Angie Thomas, THE HATE U GIVE

This is something that Thomas points out in her talk:

“Nobody is talking about the human side of these issues in these books. Nobody is taking the time to have compassion or empathy or put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. Because the thing about these books that are being targeted is that they offer different perspectives than the quote unquote majority.”

The most disheartening thing about the book bans is that as white parents lament about the effects the books targeted might have on their children, somehow Black and Brown children aren’t even considered. This is by design. This is at the heart of keeping these stories out of their hands.

However, as Thomas notes, regardless of race, book bans are a disservice to all children:

“They need those windows and sliding glass doors to see lives beyond their home, to see people unlike them who live experiences unlike theirs so they can have some compassion, some empathy. . . They are targeting the mirrors, the windows and the sliding glass doors, but my job is to continue to create those mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.”

The idea of books serving as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors was such a profound, but clear way to describe the work of YA authors, like Thomas. They are allowing children to see themselves and each other. As she stressed, this builds empathy and gives children the tools to create a better world.

The violence inherent in book banning

Simply stating the obvious about book bannings almost comes across as hyperbole, but there is no tamer language to describe the blatant messaging to Black children that neither they nor their lives matter other than violence. It is violent.

Julia Wright, daughter of the late notable Richard Wright, said as much in her talk, “Book Banning as Dismemberment”:

“The word dismemberment is powerfully plantation connected. The policy was to dismember families before the auction block. Today, dismember families before the prison…”

She recalls the same reasoning behind the censorship that her father faced — white discomfort — is what has driven the banning of many Black books today.

“We know about the censorship of part two of Black Boy to appease white North and East coast racism. We remember that ultra racist senator Bilbo condemned even the first part of Black Boy on the floor of the US Senate saying that my father’s autobiography was, quote, ‘a damnable life from beginning to the end. It is the dirtiest, lousiest, filthiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print,’ unquote.”

Violence. There is no other word for someone to tell you that your life, your story is “filthy and obscene.” But I might argue that it is merely projection. That what they see as truly obscene is the truth Richard Wright told of growing up a Black boy in the state of Mississippi during the Jim Crow era.

Wright likens book banning to an extension of the silencing of Black men on plantations, that it is the echoes of slavery in today’s world. And it is in fact that, comparable to restricting enslaved folks from reading anything that might affirm their humanity. It is their same intention to rob Black children of just that.

Memory, lies and white shame

The Mississippi Banned Books Festival closes with arguably the two greatest Mississippi writers in my lifetime, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward. Moderated by Mississippi writer Ralph Eubanks, they discuss book banning as erasing memory.

Both Laymon and Ward have been the target of book bans, but Laymon argues that it’s not actually about the book:

“I don’t think the people that banned my book, that banned Jesmyn’s, [and] banned Toni Morrison’s book have ever read the books. And so, I think if you go deeper, it’s really like drenched in this almost hatred, not just for us, as Black folks, as Indigenous folks, as Disabled folks, as Queer folks, but like white Christian nationalists who have a deep disdain for their own children.”

The disdain that Laymon speaks of is in conversation with what Thomas emphasizes about mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Because they are not really protecting their children, in each book ban, in each piece of anti-Trans legislation, it is about destroying any chance they have at love and imagination.

“I don’t think you can win a war when you’re willing to sacrifice yourself and your children to win it.”

—  Kiese Laymon, HEAVY

But there is also the shame. Ward states it plainly:

“I think that part of it is fueled by shame, right? Because one thing that our books do is [they] reckon with brutal, sort of ugly aspects of our past and our present. . . And I think that those are truths they don’t necessarily want to face, and they don’t necessarily want to reckon with.”

Is it possible that the bans are an attempt to shield their children from that shame? Maybe, but Laymon calls it a losing game.

“I don’t think you can win a war when you’re willing to sacrifice yourself and your children to win it.”

Maybe it’s the shame or perhaps it is the fear that their children might become better humans than them. There is certainly a fear that ALL children will learn to value Black and Brown and Queer and Disabled and Immigrant lives. Recognizing the humanity in themselves and each other would be a terrifyingly beautiful undoing, one that this country is past due for.

Visit our Black Joy Bookshop page for a list of banned books by some of the Black authors featured by the festival.

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham

Danielle Buckingham (she/her), affectionately known as Dani Bee, is Reckon’s Black Joy Reporter, and a Chicago-born, Mississippi-raised writer based in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2021 Lambda Literary fellow, her work has been published in MadameNoire, Midnight & Indigo Literary Magazine, Raising Mothers, and elsewhere.

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