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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.