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Book ban bids stir controversy

Campaigns to ban books have a long history in the United States and liberals and conservatives share the blame for them. But current efforts launched against public school libraries from the right are particularly worrisome because they don’t have the random, disorganized quality of previous campaigns.

Said Nora Pelazzari, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship in the Washington Post, “When taken in concert with the legislative attempts to control school curricula, this feels like a more overarching attempt to purge schools of materials that people disagree with. It feels different than what we’ve seen in past years.”

The controversy over what books should be taught in schools drew national attention in early fall when Virginia Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin successfully made an issue of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s veto of a bill allowing parents to allow their children to opt out of reading assignments they find inappropriate. The reading assignment in question was “Beloved,” a novel about an enslaved woman who kills her young daughter to spare her from slavery, by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Laureate and African-American woman.

Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye,” which focuses on sexism as well as racism, is one of 29 works “under review” by a school board in a town outside Wichita, Kansas. African-American August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences” is on that list. They aren’t banned yet but they seem unlikely to return to the school library.

In Tennessee, attempts are being made to ban books about the civil rights struggle from classrooms. Back in Virginia, two conservative school board members raised the specter of book-burning, with all of its connotations, to rid schools of works they regarded as sexually explicit. In Texas, Republican state representative Michael Krause defined obscene material as anything that might make students feel “discomfort, guilt or anguish” based on race or gender. According to the Washington Post, more than 800 books meet the definition of obscenity advocated by Krause, who is running for state attorney general.

The need to protect supposedly fragile school children is similar to the excuse made on college campuses to cancel right-wing speakers who might upset students. But students need to be challenged, not protected. It is actually the adult book-banners who dread feeling discomfort, guilt or anguish.

The books controversy ties into the manufactured frenzy over critical race theory, an academic exercise the right is using as a hobgoblin to expel the teaching of America’s uncomfortable racial history from schools. Racism has been a part of America’s fabric since its founding, and refusing to acknowledge this reality may make some people feel better but it will poison the nation further.

What can be done to combat these dangerous efforts? One answer comes from Fulton County in Pennsylvania, and while it doesn’t involve the banning of books it does constitute another way of censoring school libraries.

The three-member county commission declined to approve a school library’s $3,000 funding request because two Republican members were unhappy that the library hosted an LGBTQ support group. They regarded LGBTQ as a hate group, according to a story in The Washington Post based on an account in the Fulton County News. LGBTQ, which advocates for equal rights, is by no definition a hate group, but its members are victims of homophobia.

The good news is that a fund-raising campaign begun by two women who support the LGBTQ community, and school libraries, raised $40,000, most of it in small contributions. The library board is looking at various ways to spend the windfall.

Similarly, combatting those who would ban - or burn - books because of an extremist social and political agenda requires a concerted community effort. Parents, educators and concerned citizens must assure that schools are allowed to introduce students to great literature that addresses the reality of racism, homophobia and other ills in America - no matter who is made to feel “uncomfortable.”

Bill Everhart is the former editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle and is an occasional Eagle contributor. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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