The excuses used to silence Black authors


Authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison continue to top lists of frequently challenged books.

In 2013, Monster (1999) by Walter Dean Myers — a classic and award-winning YA novel often taught in American schools — was challenged by a small group of parents in Illinois who objected to the novel being taught in their children’s classroom.

The chief complaint? “Mature content.”

A committee of teachers and administrators reviewed the “request for reconsideration,” eventually finding the novel to be appropriate for continued use in the classroom of seventh graders. It was decided that parents who still had concerns would be offered an alternative book for their students to read. 

What sticks out to me about this not-uncommon situation (I’ve dealt with parental concerns over reading materials myself, both as a student and a teacher) is the timing of this particular challenge. Why, after being taught in the school district since 2008, was this book suddenly considered too controversial in 2013? Was it the references to drug use and sex that had parents concerned? Or was there something else in the novel’s content that parents didn’t want their children talking about?

Hold that thought.

‘Monster’ by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic Inc)

Let’s go back in time one year earlier. When Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in 2012, it set off a nationwide conversation about race, a conversation that demanded the inclusion of the perspectives of young people. Martin’s death sparked a movement and set the stage for the rallying cry #BlackLivesMatter. This cry was taken up by YA authors and in recent years we have seen a wave of YA books published that deal head-on with racism, police violence and the institutionalized racism of the American justice system. There was also a renewed interest in classic literature dealing with the same themes, such as Monster, a fictional courtroom drama about an African American teen boy in the juvenile court system accused of murder.

Now, I can’t draw any conclusions about the motivation behind the 2013 “request for reconsideration” to Monster in Illinois. I can say it was a foreshadowing of the challenges this new wave of #BlackLivesMatter literature would soon face in American schools and libraries.

Many of these books, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, have received national acclaim and attention and have even been adapted or optioned for film. “This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said Jason Reynolds. However, just like the BLM movement itself, these books and authors have also faced backlash and criticism from those unwilling to hear or accept their message. There have been widespread attempts made to silence these Black authors and remove their books from the shelves of schools and libraries and out of the hands of young readers.

“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time.”

— Jason Reynolds

How are these books being challenged? When someone is seeking to censor Black voices without appearing to be outright racist they will come up with an alternative reason as to why the content of the novel is offensive.

“Often the cited reasons for book challenges are smokescreens for the real reasons — reasons that might not always be socially acceptable to state publicly” wrote author Malinda Lo. For example, a complaint is registered about a book’s “mature themes,” not that it is a story about a young African American on trial by an unjust justice system.

This practice is doubly disturbing when you consider that the way someone makes up a reason that a book is dangerous as an excuse to silence a Black voice is the same way someone makes up a reason a person is dangerous to silence a Black life. Both actions come from a place of fear.

Other times, challenges are made more directly. “Defies authority,” “excessive police force,” “anti-police” and “racist to whites” all start appearing in ALA infographics as terms most used to challenge books in 2015. 

“Smokescreens” or not, it would be impossible to document and trace the increase in challenges to #BlackLivesMatter literature. Outside of “Top 10” lists, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) releases very little public information about the reports they receive. Their website also suggests that “82-97% of book challenges – documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries – remain unreported and receive no media.” This didn’t stop me from examining the information from a few notable cases that did draw media attention to try and piece together a brief summary of challenges over the past few years. 

‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray)

After being released earlier in the year, The Hate U Give was the eighth-most challenged and banned book in America in 2017 (right behind To Kill a Mockingbird at #7). One notable banning took place in Katy, Texas where it was challenged for “inappropriate language.” After being pulled from shelves during the review process, student Ny’Shira Lundy circulated a petition to have the book returned, collecting 4,000 signatures. The district restored the book to library shelves, but students required parental permission to check it out. “There are 89 F-bombs in The Hate U Give. But there were 800 people killed by police officers last year alone,” Thomas told EW when asked about the challenges to her book.

This same year, New Trier High School District 203 (Illinois) faced several complaints when offering a workshop featuring Andrew Aydin, coauthor of the graphic memoir series March, which chronicles the life of congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis. The program was not altered and saw increased student participation.

‘All American Boys’ by Jason Reynold, Brendan Kiely (Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books)

In 2018, the inclusion of All American Boys and The Hate U Give on Wando High School’s summer reading list, two of the four possible options, was challenged by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Charleston County, South Carolina. “It’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police, and we’ve got to put a stop to that,” said John Blackman, president of the group. This case caught attention as many were shocked police officers would make a challenge to a high school summer reading list. After a reviewal process, the books remained on the list but four more book choices were added to offer additional alternatives. 

Also in 2018, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes saw its first challenges and a librarian at Pikes Peak Library District in Colorado Springs, Colorado received complaintsvabout a “Black Lives Matter display, filled with contemporary books by black authors and featuring black characters”.

‘Dear Martin’ by Nic Stone (Simon and Schuster)

In 2019, the novel Dear Martin by Nic Stone was blocked from a list of recommended reading in English courses in Columbia County high schools in Georgia, Stone’s home state. The book was called “unacceptable” and said to contain extreme content and explicit language. “Books like ‘Dear Martin’ and the content in that book – it’s not a book that we would want sitting on a shelf,” said Superintendent Sandra Carraway while discussing the possibility of removing the book from school media centers. Stone responded by hosting an event at the Columbia County Public Library, donating a copy of Dear Martin to each teen in attendance. 

During this time challenges to Black classics written by authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison continue to top lists of frequently challenged books.

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou (Random House)

Why does knowing any of this matter? We need to stay informed and be prepared if we plan on fighting further censorship of Black voices.

This summer, the entire world responded in protest to the murder of George Floyd. Conversations about race and police brutality reignited online. Anyone participating in the online book community would have seen lists of anti-racist reading material circulating, many of which included the aforementioned banned titles. You may have read some of the titles yourself. More YA books with #BlackLivesMatter themes are set to publish this year, including Dear Justyce, Nic Stone’s sequel to her banned book. Unfortunately, recent history shows us that these books will not go unchallenged. In fact, as I take a break from editing this article to check Twitter, I’m reading that recent release You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson is receiving its first challenge this week.

So what can you do?

Stay informed, be prepared and report censorship if you see it in your community. “Attempts to ban books rarely succeed when people speak out against them” states Betsy Gomez.

Look past smokescreen challenges and call it what it is — an attempt to silence Black voices. Ways of speaking out might include starting a petition, writing a letter or posting on social media. We can support Black voices and call for them to be included in every classroom and library.

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”– Starr Carter, The Hate U Give

Spencer is a high school English teacher in Montréal, Canada. He loves graphic novels and books about road trips.

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