A look at the situation in the U.S. shows that the warning about leftist Cancel Culture and Wokism, has in fact prepared a massive wave of bans on children's and young adult books that address racism, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues. Philip Nel on the history and actuality of conservative censorship.

American children face real dangers. “Indoc­tri­na­tion” by “woke” teachers is not among them.

        Kinder­gart­ners endure active shooter drills, lear­ning how to shelter in place. In 2018, guns became the leading cause of death for all children and teen­agers, excee­ding motor vehicle acci­dents for the first time. Child labor is on the rise, with some states actually loosening regu­la­tions to increase it. Accor­ding to the Children’s Defense Fund, more than 1 in 7 children live in house­holds where not ever­yone had enough to eat; half of these children are Black or Hispanic. Nearly 1 in 7 children live in poverty; 71% of them are children of color.

        In response to the systemic endan­ger­ment of young people, the Repu­blican Party is neither inves­ting in child welfare programs nor banning assault weapons. It is banning books featuring LGBTQ+ charac­ters or promi­nent charac­ters of color, books addres­sing racism, or books contai­ning infor­ma­tion about abor­tion, pregnancy, or sexual assault. Last month, the American Library Asso­cia­tion reported its highest number of attempted book bans since it began compi­ling censor­ship data over two decades ago. The “1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022 … nearly doubles the 729 book chal­lenges reported in 2021.”

Trung Le Nguyen, The Magic Fish (2020) is banned because of its gay protagonist.

Bran­ches of state and local govern­ment controlled by the Repu­blican Party have also been issuing educa­tional gag orders prohi­bi­ting the teaching of race, racism, gender, LGBTQ+ rights, or American history. As PEN America reports, as of August 2022, “proposed educa­tional gag orders” increased 250 percent over the previous year. They were more likely to target higher educa­tion (as well as primary and secon­dary educa­tion), and were more likely to be puni­tive — with punish­ments ranging from heavy fines to being fired to facing criminal charges. And these gag orders were intro­duced in more 36 states in 2022, as compared to only 22 in 2021.

        Of the 137 educa­tional gag order bills intro­duced in 2022, exactly one had a Demo­cratic sponsor.

        That said, it is true that attempts to regu­late what children read is a trans­ideo­lo­gical pheno­menon. Gene­rally spea­king, libe­rals want to protect children from racist books, while conser­va­tives want both to protect children from knowing that racism exists and simul­ta­neously to defend retai­ning racist books in the curri­culum. Libe­rals think sex educa­tion is a good idea, but conser­va­tives want to protect children from lear­ning how human repro­duc­tion works.


Mike Curato, Flamer (2020), the most banned book in the fall of 2022 in PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, because it contains “alter­nate sexualities.”

There are two important distinc­tions between these poli­tical posi­tions. First, the pain of racism, sexism, homo­phobia, or trans­phobia is not borne equally by all: bigotry’s targets feel its wounds far more deeply. While there is pedago­gical value to reading against the hatred in such books, their conser­va­tive defen­ders excuse them on the pretext that these are but “of their time” and “people thought that way back then.” But, as Robin Bern­stein reminds us, all people in any given time do not think alike; and the targets of bigotry were hurt back then, too. Compoun­ding this harm, the lie that the powerful are now a perse­cuted mino­rity has become a pretext for scape­goa­ting multi­cul­tu­ra­lism and banning diverse books. 

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web (2012), banned due to themes of death and the fact that the main charac­ters are talking animals.

In contrast to books that promote bigotry or histo­rical erasure, books that show the achie­ve­ments of mino­ri­tized groups, illus­trate the ways in which racism is systemic, or explain how the human body works help all young people. For mino­ri­tized children, seeing them­selves in lite­ra­ture and history affirms their huma­nity, telling them that their stories matter. For other children, seeing lives diffe­rent from their own reminds them that they are not the center of the universe. Know­ledge helps all children make better decis­ions about matters that affect them, their class­mates, and the people in their community. 

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        The second key distinc­tion between the US right and the US left on regu­la­ting children’s reading is that the right are simply better at it. Despite manu­fac­tured hysteria about so-called “cancel culture,” libe­rals have histo­ri­cally been very unsuc­cessful at censor­ship. The successful efforts almost always support hete­ro­pa­tri­ar­chal white supremacy.


Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970), banned and chal­lenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexu­ally explicit.

  The current American enthu­siasm for censor­ship dates back nearly 300 years. Early prohi­bi­tions against lear­ning target not Black history (as they do today) but Black literacy. South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740, in the name of compel­ling enslaved people into “due subjec­tion and obedience” and saving “public peace and order,” imposed fines of 100 pounds for teaching the enslaved to write. In the ante­bellum nine­te­enth century, all Southern states except for Mary­land and Kentucky passed laws making it illegal to teach any Black person — free or enslaved — to read or write.

        Later in the nine­te­enth century, the United States’ most successful profes­sional censor, Anthony Comstock, also used racism and xeno­phobia to advance his book bans. In the first Annual Report of the New York Society for the Suppres­sion of Vice in 1875, Comstock suggested that foreig­ners and immi­grants made (elite, white) children suscep­tible to porno­graphy and obscenity. He even compiled a list of arrests to prove his point: “Of the entire number of persons arrested, 46 were Irish, 34 Ameri­cans, 24 English, 13 Cana­dian, 3 French, 1 Spaniard, 1 Italian, 1 Negro, and 1 Polish Jew, showing that a large propor­tion of those engaged in the nefa­rious traffic are not native American citi­zens.” In his Second Annual Report, he confirmed: “It will be seen at a glance that we owe much of this demo­ra­liza­tion to the impor­ta­tion of crimi­nals from other lands.”

Craft’s books have been banned as part of efforts to stamp out „critical race theory” in schools.

        As Nicola Beisel’s Impe­riled Inno­cents: Anthony Comstock and Family Repro­duc­tion in Victo­rian Americadocu­ments, “By blaming the spread of obscenity on immi­grants, Comstock utilized already exis­ting ideo­lo­gies about the city and its inha­bi­tants to cons­truct obscenity as a threat.” He claimed to be acting in the name of protec­ting “children,” but his focus was only elite, white, male children — whose future poli­tical power he wanted to main­tain. And what was obscene, accor­ding to him? Anything about the body, espe­ci­ally women’s bodies, human repro­duc­tion, birth control. The 1873 Comstock Act expanded the 1865 federal obscenity law, which said that no “obscene, lewd, or lasci­vious book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publi­ca­tion of vulgar and inde­cent character shall be admitted into the mails,” adding to that list “any article or thing desi­gned or intended for the preven­tion of concep­tion or procu­ring of abortion.”

        Enfor­cing this law would be the new US Postal Inspector, Anthony Comstock. The law did not specify what would be considered “obscene, lewd, or lasci­vious,” “inde­cent,” and “immoral.” So, Comstock would decide himself. As histo­rian Marjorie Heins tells us, from the 1870s until the 1930s, enforcers of this censor­ship law used an extre­mely “broad criteria” based on “possible impact on the mind of children” for “suppress[ing] count­less lite­rary works” — with virtually no inter­fe­rence from the courts.

        Why does this start happe­ning in the 1870s? It’s a back­lash against poli­tical gains made by African Ameri­cans and women. During Recon­s­truc­tion, Black men could vote and gain elec­tive office. And they did. Suffra­gists were agita­ting for the right to vote. Their access to the fran­chise threa­tened the mono­poly on power held by elite white men. So, by promo­ting racist and sexist stereo­types, and then crea­ting laws to “protect” citi­zens from these imagi­nary dangers, white men found ways to reas­sert control.

        For example, until the 1850s, abor­tion had been legal for the first half of pregnancy in nearly every US state. Though it was still common in 1870, abor­tion had by then — as Nicola Beisel writes — “become symbolic of the collapse of civi­liza­tion.” That’s quite a shift in just 20 years. “Abor­tion” is named five times among articles prohi­bited in the 1873 Comstock Act. During our contem­po­rary back­lash, in their efforts to prevent distri­bu­tion of the abor­tion pill mife­pris­tone, Repu­blican Attor­neys General are citing the very same Comstock Act. In response to their threats, Walgreens has agreed not to distri­bute the pill in 21 states, even though abor­tion is legal in some of them. Since the US Supreme Court over­turned Roe vs. Wade in June 2022, abor­tion is also now illegal in 12 US states, with more likely to follow. 

        The current efforts to crimi­na­lize multi­cul­tural children’s books also have many prece­dents, begin­ning at least a century ago, when the move­ment for diverse books — today embo­died most visibly in the We Need Diverse Books orga­niza­tion — was first gaining critical mass. From 1920 to 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois co-edited The Brow­nies Book, a monthly maga­zine “for the Children of the Sun,” and the first place where Lang­ston Hughes’ poetry was published. His contem­po­rary, histo­rian Carter G. Woodson wanted young Black people to learn accu­rate history. Since main­stream (white) publi­shing was igno­ring the accom­plish­ments of African Ameri­cans, Woodson in 1920 founded Asso­ciated Publishers, which in 1922 published his The Negro in Our History, a text­book for high school students.

        As Ibram X. Kendi recently wrote in The Atlantic, in 1925, teachers at the Negro Manual and Trai­ning High School of Muskogee Okla­homa chose Woodson’s The Negro in Our History as their text­book. As Woodson writes in the preface, the book’s purpose is “to present to the average reader […] the history of the United States as it has been influenced by the presence of the Negro in this country.” Doing so, he wrote, would “demons­trate” what Black Ameri­cans have “contri­buted to civi­liza­tion.” In response, the white supre­macists on the school board suggested that Woodson’s was “antiklan,” and prono­unced that no book could be “instilled in the schools that is either klan or antiklan.” As Kendi notes, “The school board banned the book. It confis­cated all copies. It punished the teachers. It forced the resi­gna­tion of the school’s prin­cipal.” In response, in 1926, Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week, which would become Black History Month some 50 years later.

        The 1925 Okla­homa school board’s “klan or antiklan” ratio­nale finds a contem­po­rary echo in the language of Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which offers a similar both-sides-ism in turning multi­cul­tural language against multi­cul­tu­ra­lism. Denying that struc­tural inequa­li­ties exist, the act prohi­bits from K-20 public educa­tion the idea that “A person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal respon­si­bi­lity for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psycho­lo­gical distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.” 

        The act is the logical (or illo­gical) conclu­sion of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists calls color-blind racism. It’s why white supre­macists quote Dr. Martin Luther King’s wish that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line, but only that line and without the broader context indic­ting struc­tural racism in the US. 

        This variety of color-blind racism sneaks into the Florida law via the (possibly) well-intentioned idea to somehow, magi­cally, not see race — an idea widely promoted in American schools. The idea may be well-intentioned because, of course, we should judge a person by the content of their character, not their race. However, it’s also a lie because, first, race is not skin color. It can be a rheto­rical short­hand, as it is in Dr. King’s speech, where “color of their skin” is a meta­phor for race. But race and races are, as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic write, “products of social thought and rela­tions. Not objec­tive, inherent, or fixed, they corre­spond to no biolo­gical or genetic reality; rather, races are cate­go­ries that society invents, mani­pu­lates, or retires when convenient.”

        The second reason “I don’t see race” is dange­rous is that, if we “don’t see race,” then how can we diagnose and oppose racism? As Bonilla-Silva writes, “color-blind racism serves today as the ideo­lo­gical armor for a covert and insti­tu­tio­na­lized system” of racial oppres­sion. And “it aids in the main­ten­ance of white privi­lege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.” As he puts it, “whites enun­ciate posi­tions that safe­guard their racial inte­rests without sounding ‘racist.’ Shielded by color blind­ness, whites can express resent­ment toward mino­ri­ties; criti­cize their mora­lity, values, and work ethic; and even claim to be the victims of ‘reverse racism’” — which is another example of using a term desi­gned for diagno­sing oppres­sion in order to uphold said oppression.

        Since at least the nine­te­enth century, disgu­i­sing harm as safety has been an effec­tive way for the American poli­tical right to curtail access to know­ledge. First, drawing upon exis­ting preju­dices, a white person (usually a man) invents or promotes a fear or group of fears. Ampli­fying people’s fears makes them easier to mani­pu­late, and promo­ting a shared hatred builds commu­nity around a perceived enemy. Second, after ampli­fying public anxiety against the threat posed by a cultural “other” (women, Blacks, immi­grants, youth), the white person offers to solve the “problem” he has invented. This solu­tion directs the power of the state against the mino­rity or mino­ri­ties he’s been scape­goa­ting, invests him with more power, and creates in his (usually majo­rity white, usually majo­rity male) supporters a feeling of power — though, for the supporters, the power gained may be more a shared emotional expe­ri­ence than measurable mate­rial gain. 


PEN USA, Quelle: pen.org

Today, books about Black history, people of color more gene­rally, women, LGBTQ folks are all being banned for three reasons. First, know­ledge is power. When you know your history, you gain a sense of belon­ging, and some scope of what’s possible in your life. When people whose histo­ries have not been included in the history books know their history, discover what their ances­tors have accom­plished in a system desi­gned to ensure their failure, that is even more powerful. That’s one reason why the book bans and educa­tional gag laws are targe­ting Black history.

        A second reason that books about histo­ri­cally margi­na­lized groups are being removed from library shelves is that aware­ness of inju­s­tice pricks the consci­ence. Florida’s Stop W.O.K.E. Act admits as much by forbid­ding discus­sions of race, gender, or natio­na­lity that may inspire feelings of “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psycho­lo­gical distress,” and barring any acknow­led­ge­ment  that racism may happen uncon­sciously. However, to feel “distress” about systemic inju­s­tice is both morally and psycho­lo­gi­cally healthy.

        And that’s why it’s vital that ever­yone read diverse books, but espe­ci­ally young people. Lite­ra­ture for children can culti­vate a sympa­thetic imagi­na­tion, via the capa­city — imagi­na­tively, for the dura­tion of the novel — to inhabit a life that is not their own. And it is by imagi­ning other people’s perspec­tives that we develop the capa­city to grow into moral, caring people. As Hannah Arendt writes, Adolf Eichmann’s evil was banal not because he was stupid but because he lacked the capa­city to imagine other people’s perspec­tives. As she puts it, “It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means iden­tical with stupidity—that predis­posed him to become one of the grea­test crimi­nals of that period.” When we sani­tize history and erase the diver­sity of views that multi­cul­tural children’s lite­ra­ture supplies, we are sanc­tio­ning the thought­less­ness that leads to evil.


PEN USA, www.pen.org

The third reason for the removal of books by histo­ri­cally margi­na­lized groups is a parti­cular type of nost­algia. In other words, nost­algia itself is not the problem; the objects of its longing are. What Alas­tair Bonnett calls anti-colonialist nost­algia can express radical year­nings for social trans­for­ma­tion. What Badia Ahad-Legardy iden­ti­fies as Afro-nostalgia can create an archive of Black histo­rical joy to repair trau­matic memory. However, what Boym callsresto­ra­tive nost­algia — the nost­algia that moti­vates book bans — manu­fac­tures a vicious cycle of fear and illu­sory safety that spreads insta­bi­lity. As Boym writes, resto­ra­tive nost­algia seeks to revive a true tradi­tion, cons­truc­ting a unified, uncom­pli­cated past. It expresses a longing for “an enchanted world with clear borders and values,” but, as Boym warns, “Only false memo­ries can be totally recalled.” Resto­ra­tive nost­algia — for an imagi­nary era when America was “great” and child­hood was inno­cent — fuels tota­li­ta­rian thinking.

        In contrast, we might look back with what Boym calls reflec­tive nost­algia, explo­ring the ambi­va­lence and comple­xity that resto­ra­tive nost­algia seeks to erase. That sort of nost­algia can be healthy. Also healthy, of course, is acknow­led­ging that nost­algia is not always the best lens through which to view the past.

        The promo­ters of the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” and parallel efforts would like citi­zens to dream of an idyllic past, revi­ving the myth that they (and so many Ameri­cans) were taught in school. Such myths comfort those who believe in them — but only tempo­r­a­rily, because the myths don’t address the causes of the under­lying pain that leads people to seek comfort in lies and conspi­ra­cies. In attemp­ting to relo­cate the psychic wounds, resto­ra­tive nost­algia allows those wounds to fester and become dange­rous. As Boym says, “Unre­flec­tive nost­algia can breed mons­ters.” And as James Baldwin observed, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stub­bornly is because they sense, once that is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

        Dealing with histo­rical pain is the only way to heal — or, at least, attempt to heal — trau­matic memory. Multi­cul­tural children’s books offer a reader-friendly way to do this. 

        Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Anti­ra­cism and You offers an oppor­tu­nity to learn how America’s racist past shapes its racist present, but also how past anti­ra­cism might help us, as Kendi says, “work towards buil­ding an anti­ra­cist America.” Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — a book taught at the high school level — can teach us how white ideals of beauty and worth damage the psyche. Reading George M. Johnson’s memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue grants insight into the chal­lenges and joys of growing up Black and queer. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All-American Boys offer a nuanced, sympa­thetic look into young people — Black and white — coming to support the move­ment for Black lives.

        Or these books could teach these things if young people could read them. But all five of these books were among the 10 most banned and chal­lenged books of either 2020 or 2021. Such books are likely to elicit wide-ranging, compli­cated emotional responses from their readers — emotions now prohi­bited in the class­rooms of some US states. But, as the late James Loewen wrote in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Ever­y­thing Your American History Text­book Got Wrong, “Emotion is the glue that causes history to stick.” 

        Emotion is the key. Though they address the pain of diffe­rent commu­ni­ties than those banning them, multi­cul­tural children’s and YA books open conver­sa­tions about loss and pain that can cut across ideo­lo­gical lines. To quote James Baldwin again, “You think your pain and your heart­break are unpre­ce­dented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” Because they often require readers to face histo­rical pain, and because we all of us expe­ri­ence pain — in diffe­rent ways, but no one escapes life without sorrow — these books can connect readers of diffe­rent racial, cultural, and reli­gious back­grounds. In other words, diverse books for young readers and for older ones can acti­vate the empathy that builds community.

        This is why autho­ri­ta­rians fear these books. And it’s why we must defend the right to read them.