Originally reported from USA Today
Deborah Barfield Berry


WASHINGTON – They signed in for the online “Troublemaker Training’’ from places like Colorado, Michigan, New York and Tennessee. More than 70 attendees got tips on talking points they could use in the fight against book bans in their communities.

“Book banning… seems to be not going away,’’ Julie Womack, organizing director for Red, Wine & Blue, said as she kicked off the hourlong training in mid-December. “It continues to spread so it’s very likely to be something that will happen in your school district.”

The session was one of several hosted by Red, Wine & Blue, a grassroots group mobilizing suburban women, many of them liberal-leaning, as part of its campaign to push back against the rise of book bans. Across the country, national and local groups have launched projects to counter efforts to ban or restrict books, many written by authors of color or focused on issues like racism, gender identity and sexuality.

These parents, civil rights activists and teacher advocates started bookmobiles offering banned books, created toolkits to equip activists, hosted online book clubs and sponsored banned book giveaways. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., introduced legislation to counter the bans.

The efforts come as more states and local jurisdictions, including school boards, adopt measures to ban or restrict what books teachers can use and librarians can put on shelves.

Supporters of such efforts said they help protect people, particularly young readers, from harmful teachings and that parents should have more say in what their children are taught. Opponents argue the bans are part of a culture war that demands action.

“Banned books are just the tip of the iceberg,’’ said Deborah Menkart, executive director of Teaching for Change, an advocacy group. “What’s being banned or what’s being censored is much wider than that.”

‘Ready and organized to fight back’

Womack and others offered tips – bring people to school board meetings, share personal stories along with statistics and call out the names of banned books, including ones about civil rights icons like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We just have to be ready and organized to fight back,’’ she told listeners Thursday.

The organization also hosts other online events, including salons where speakers – sometimes authors – talk about book bans. On the first Wednesday of each month, it hosts an online book club to discuss a banned book. The December selection was “1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson.

The group started its “Book Ban Busters’’ campaign in February 2022 when members raised concerns about the increasing number of book bans.

“That was our way to help people fight back against these very extremist attacks,’’ Womack told USA TODAY.

Some national groups also teamed up to battle the bans.

The National Urban League is part of a coalition encouraging local activists and parents to fight book bans.

Marc Morial, president of the civil rights organization, told a group of mostly civil rights activists at an awards dinner in Washington, D.C., earlier this month that Black History is under attack and book bans are part of the fight.

“Take a banned book and put it under the tree for Christmas for your children,’’ Morial told the cheering crowd.

Efforts to ban books on the rise

Beyond the annual Banned Books Week” in October, the American Library Association last year launched United Against Book Bans, a free online toolkit to help people fight bans in their communities. It provides best practices and alerts if a book ban is proposed in a community.

“We need to activate and empower community members…the voters, the taxpayers who live in the community, who use the library, whose rights are being impaired by book censorship,’’ said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

It’s important, she said, that they “go to (school) board meetings and add another voice to the conversation.”

Caldwell-Stone said the association was not prepared for the organized and coordinated attempts in recent years to ban books.

The association used to get 300 to 400 reports a year of efforts across the country to remove books from libraries or to challenge a display, Caldwell-Stone said. The number jumped to 729 in 2020 and up to 1,269 in 2022. Most banned books were about LGBTQ+ communities and people of color, she said.

After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, more teachers started using inclusive materials, including some about African Americans and Asian Americans, said Ananya Sen, assistant professor of information teaching and management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In the wake of the efforts by teachers, there was a spike in book bans, particularly between July and December of 2021, Sen said. Many bans were at local levels. Sen is one of the researchers of a study about book bans by Carnegie Mellon University and George Mason University.

Some bans on books increased their readership, Sen said. Lists of banned books were circulated on social media. Some groups started online book clubs to read banned books.

“Social media chatter seems to play a significant role in bringing attention to this issue,’’ Sen said.

Earlier this year, historians and others at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History conference in Jacksonville, Florida, read excerpts of banned books at a park.

Since the spring of 2021, Teaching for Change has used social media for its #TeachTruth campaign to share a list of recommended banned books that focus on social justice and civic engagement.

It made postcards, posters and buttons urging people to “Teach Banned Books” and created a traveling art installation in partnership with the African American Policy Forum that features banned books glued to bookshelves.

Menkart said she’s concerned about bans and laws restricting what can be taught in public schools.

“Teachers are self-censoring way beyond the banned books list,’’ she said.

She added: “The book bans are happening in a context where really there’s a heavy effort to ban teaching honestly about U.S. history, particularly about racism, (and) currently to teach honestly about Palestine. We should recognize that the list and books are not the complete story.’’

Should parents have more say?

Some proponents of book restrictions criticize the news outlets and activists for calling the efforts bans. They argue the steps help ensure books used in schools are age-appropriate.

“It should not be a partisan issue to assert that children do better when their families know what is going on in their lives,’’ Nicole Neily, president and founder of Parents Defending Education, said in written testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in September. “This isn’t rocket science: the more information parents have, the better they can support their kids, both emotionally and academically.”

Dozens of states, including Texas and Oklahoma, have adopted or proposed measures that limit how Black history is taught or that restrict the use of some books. Proponents argue some books are offensive and that key parts of Black history are already taught in schools.

Jonathan Butcher, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said there have previously been disagreements over curricula taught in schools, including reading. He said it is the responsibility of adults to determine what should be taught to children and at age-appropriate levels.

“A school board has the right to decide what material is going to be delivered to students as long as it stays within the bounds of what state and federal civil rights laws already provide,’’ Butcher said.

Authors of banned books gathered at HBCU

Nearly two dozen Black authors, all women, gathered in November in Jackson, Mississippi, to speak at the 50th annual Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival. Some of the authors had penned books that are banned.

The conference, hosted by the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University, featured a panel on banned books that included Angie Thomas, author of the banned book, “The Hate U Give.’’ More than 400 people attended the panel.

“The timing of it made sense,’’ said Robert Luckett, director of the center. “It was just an incredible opportunity for us in that moment to speak to an issue, one that has spanned all of American history.’’

In April, the Transformative Justice Coalition gave away banned books in a neighborhood in Houston where George Floyd was raised. The coalition also teamed with other organizations to give away books in other states banning books, including Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. That’s in addition to its efforts to promote civic engagement, like voting.

“It’s an act of resistance. You cannot stop us. It’s a historical connection because our people were banned from reading,’’ said Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of the national racial justice organization.

Congressional lawmakers push to stop book bans

Opponents of book bans have also proposed legislation to try to stop the rise.

Earlier this month, Pressley introduced the most recent Democratic measure, the “Books Save Lives Act.”

The legislation would, among other things, require that public libraries and school libraries have a diverse collection of books. It also aims to classify discriminatory book bans as violations of federal civil rights laws and calls for the U.S. Government Accountability Office to report on the impact of book bans on underrepresented communities.

The legislation “pushes back on this dangerous trend,’’ Pressley said in a statement. “Every reader deserves to see themselves reflected in our literature.’’

Womack of Red Wine & Blue said its book club will discuss “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini at its next meeting in January. Other trainings to fight book bans are also on the schedule.

“I don’t expect it to stop,’’ Womack said of the book ban movement. “I’m sure there will be more moves made. We’ll keep doing what we’re doing.’’

Photo credits: Participants joined a “Banned Book Readout” at James Weldon Johnson Park in Jacksonville, Fla., in September. Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union