Fighting for the stories that are actually being censored
What stories have historically been and are still currently being silenced? And how can we work to bring them to the forefront?
[Dear readers: before continuing on, please note that this newsletter edition contains discussions of police brutality, racism, and transphobia—including references to notoriously transphobic authors.]
Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) celebrates Banned Books Week, a week-long event that “spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools.” Looking at the books that individuals have attempted to remove, they pull together the Top 10 most challenged titles of the previous year.
What is arguably the most interesting aspect of their annual lists is how they never fail to reflect current events. In 2020, for example, the same year as the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, four of the 10 titles were noted as being challenged for reasons such as “anti-police” views and “not encompass[ing] racism against all people.” In 2019 as Drag Queen Story Hour (a program that brings drag queens into libraries, bookstores, and schools for storytime) began to gain popularity, ALA recorded 30 challenges to the initiative. Not so coincidentally, eight of the 10 top challenged titles were recorded for being censored due to their containment of LGBTQIA+ representation.
Such censorship results in numerous problems, as well as numerous questions. We’ve seen individuals on social media and in real life call for restrictions on educational materials such as the 1619 Project; we’ve seen white women on Instagram complain time and time again about “cancel culture.” More recently, we’ve seen the Newberg School District in Portland ban Pride and BLM flags for being “political” (and also a teacher show up in blackface to protest vaccine mandates).
Is there a difference between an individual requesting that their children’s school library doesn’t contain The Hate U Give and a parent requesting that To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t taught (hint: we argue a big “yes”)? How does privilege protect a person’s platform from being censored? And, alternatively, how do embedded inequities ensure historically oppressed communities continue to be silenced?
In this edition of the newsletter, we will attempt to explore these questions and others. In doing so we hope that we will all begin to further understand why and how it is so important for us to bring these historically oppressed stories to the forefront and push against bans.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy to imagine many—if not all—of the books featured in Conversation pieces on our site making ALA’s Top 10 list. Their critical discussions of racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, etc. make them easy targets if we are going off of the recorded reasons for books being banned in previous years.
For this newsletter, we are choosing to draw attention to The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, a story that explores the protagonist’s identity through the eyes of those who both love and fear him*. One theme we noticed while reading was the question of why society makes it so challenging for someone to thrive, be happy, and be themselves.
Earlier this year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author that has been called out for her trans-exclusionary feminism, published a paper that dismissed such claims against her as “cancel culture.” In part, the essay was in response to a tweet from Emezi. Adichie’s response to these claims and subsequent conversations distract from the real issue at hand (perhaps a different form of censorship in and of itself?)—that same issue that The Death of Vivek Oji brings to the forefront: that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are not only entitled to basic human rights (particularly safety and happiness), but that as a society, we should actively be building such an environment.
So tell us: How do books like The Death of Vivek Oji draw attention to the importance of visibility, advocacy, and support?
*Potential spoiler: We acknowledge and support that by the end of the novel Vivek identifies as Nnemdi (she/her/hers). To avoid spoilers for potential readers, we use he/him/his pronouns here and recognize that on page 217, Juju says “Sometimes he asked us to call him by another name; he said we could refer to him as either she or he, that he was both.” If you have comments and/or concerns with this approach, please do send us a message—we would love your feedback.
What exactly is “cancel culture” and where does it originate from? In the paper “DRAG THEM: A brief etymology of so-called ‘cancel culture,’” Dr. Meredith Clark argues that the term has been appropriated from Black Twitter vernacular to create a “moral panic.” This lens is critical for viewing why white individuals simultaneously claim that cancel culture is running rampant and go on to prevent their child’s library from housing a book they consider “political.”
Based on the current events from this year, we can (unfortunately) imagine the types of stories that might influence the Top 10 list next year, such as the fight for reproductive justice (this post contains resources to help you learn more and take action for Texas); immigration rights; and general ongoing violence.
Latine/x & Hispanic Heritage Month kicked off on September 15. Like other historically oppressed communities, the Latine/x community is often disproportionately impacted by the aforementioned issues. An organization we admire working to combat gender-based violence, assist immigrants, and also build Latin@ leadership is Esperanza United, a coalition based out of Minnesota.
Another good read is this essay by Alex Gino, whose children’s book George has been number one on the Top 10 list for a few years now. “When people tell me to be proud that I’m ‘upsetting the right people,’ it hurts. I get the sentiment, but their humor is rooted in the fact that people are so horrified by my existence that they want to ban their children from knowing that I and people like me exist.”
And, finally, we’d be remiss to not point out the complaints about companies being canceled after supporting problematic individuals or ideals. But when a company chooses to profit off of racism, sexism, etc., they are making an active choice to support those viewpoints and deem the issue as irrelevant and unimportant, especially if they choose to ignore the concerns of those actually impacted by such decisions.
For this month’s downloads, we’ve made mobile wallpapers. And, as always, newsletter subscribers get access to two exclusive designs. Just visit this page and use the password ACupOfTea to download.
If Sundays are funny, the Monday Moodies really get us. (For more of Olivia’s humor, watch this Reel.)
Words we love
This month we are ecstatic to feature a piece by community member Noelani Piters, or @backtobacklist on Instagram. Noelani is a writer living in San Francisco.
In the beginning it seemed the silence was earned. That was the only explanation—why else would no one listen, or answer; why else would they all turn away when we spoke? Then there was frustration, and anger, and our realities became a problem that did not deserve solving. The shameful thing then was not the void but the aching that throbbed because of it. We put pen to paper, because though the emptiness of the pages were as still as the silence, they blanketed and held our words. Only the pages calmed us. Now they had something to hold in their hands, to cut and burn. We fell asleep to cold laughter and woke to the crackle of paper. But there was something about the cacophony of it all that felt different. Amidst all of that destruction, we heard ourselves echo through the din. Nothing sounded sweeter. We gathered the remnants from the floor. We assembled a new, jagged mosaic to catch the light. We began again.
If you’re interested in submitting a piece for a future newsletter issue, send us an email or DM us on Instagram.
So, all this being said, what about the original questions we posed? Why is a ban on The Hate U Give different from a ban on To Kill A Mockingbird? In ALA’s opinion, it’s not—Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read, period. We agree with this, mostly. What we don’t agree with is when “censorship” and “cancel culture” are thrown around for the sake of upholding structures of power.
Too often, bans come from an individual’s desire (primarily privileged white folks) to protect their own status and superiority—whether that be by othering historically oppressed sexualities, gender identities, disabilities, races, etc. In enacting these bans, these individuals stay at the top, preventing critical information from being disseminated and too often replacing it with forms of misinformation. For example, while books like To Kill a Mockingbird now and then make the Top 10 list for containing racist slurs and stereotypical depictions of Black individuals, we cannot simply dismiss these bans/challenges as one-and-the-same as a ban/challenge on The Hate U Give. Stories by white authors like To Kill a Mockingbird can uphold harmful power dynamics (here, specifically, with the depiction of saviorism, race, and class as depicted through Tom Robinson and his relationship with Atticus Finch), while those like the latter often attempt to dismantle them (Angie Thomas’s novel takes a hard look at police brutality). This is not to say these stories shouldn’t be used in the classroom—rather, we must take a critical look at how they are being used. Are they being used in place of stories with better, more representative texts? Or are they being taught in conjunction with? The latter can be a powerful way to create conversation; the former a harmful and limited way to represent society.
As always, this is why reading, promoting, and advocating for authors that are highlighting such issues are all so important—the more people that read these stories, the more people will see them on social media, and then the more publishers will continue to print and publish similar texts (part of the reason why indie publishers are so important). If we request our libraries to have these books, we can demonstrate their necessity, especially in the face of a ban. If you hear of something being challenged in your school district, report it to ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (because the vast majority of bans go uncounted). And, importantly, support and advocate for politicians that aren’t enacting bans on critical learning materials and attempting to replace them with white-washed versions.
We hope you learned something or enjoyed something in this month’s edition. We’re so grateful for this growing community. Be sure to send any feedback our way.
Olivia and Fiona