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Democracy’s other threat: Book bans and purges

Limiting access to literature, especially by authors of color, is yet another authoritarian tool polluting political discourse.

In this Nov. 8, 2006 photo, American Nobel laureate and "Beloved" author Toni Morrison smiles during a press conference at the Louvre Museum in Paris.Michel Euler/AP/file 2006

The first book I truly loved was “Steal Away Home.”

Written by Jane Kristof, it’s the story of two enslaved brothers who escape from a South Carolina plantation and traverse the Underground Railroad to find their father. It’s a children’s adventure novel, but also it’s a horror tale plucked from history that shows the bottomless cruelties of slavery, the kindness of strangers, and the unbendable steel of Black perseverance.

If I were an elementary school student today, would I even be allowed to read it?

It’s alarming that there should be any reason to ponder such a thing in the 21st century. Yet in states nationwide, books are disappearing from library shelves and school curriculums. Attacks against voting rights are the most profound threat to democracy, but it isn’t the only front in a relentless right-wing assault. Conservative groups are targeting books about racism, LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, and anything else arbitrarily deemed “inappropriate.”

A Kansas school district has removed more than two dozen books, including Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fences,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. A Texas school district pulled 400 books, with “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules,” and William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” among them. In Tennessee, a teacher was fired after he assigned his students to read a Coates essay about Donald Trump, “The First White President,” and to watch a video of Kyla Jenée Lacey reading her poem “White Privilege.”


Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, school officials have been under tremendous pressure from irate parents intent on battling every health care guidance proposed to protect students, teachers, and staff. By comparison, keeping certain books in their libraries probably seems like a hill not worth dying on. Yet such right-wing policing of literature is clearly about controlling history’s truths, what children may recognize in themselves, and systemic changes it may spark them to demand of their communities and nation.


These book bans and purges are a backlash to 2020’s “racial reckoning.” Even if it was never a reckoning — when has America ever really reckoned with anything? — it was at least an awakening for some young white people who never gave racism’s scourge much thought until Darnella Frazier’s video of a white police officer murdering George Floyd went viral.

That awakening, however slight, terrified a lot of people who did not want seen the ties that bind this nation’s white supremacist origins to that Minneapolis street where Floyd took his last breath under Derek Chauvin’s knee. Bans against critical race theory, which is not taught in elementary schools, inevitably begat book purges and yet another manufactured culture war for Republicans who have little else to offer.

It was enough to propel Glenn Youngkin into the Virginia governor’s seat. He waged a disgusting campaign against the teaching of “Beloved,” Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel about slavery’s devastating shadows, riling up easily frightened white voters. And if it worked for a political novice, Republicans wouldn’t hesitate to feed a bonfire with books as a means to regain and amass power.

When I was growing up, books were my all-access pass to the world. In school, I was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Book bans were something we would only hear about in history class as a tool of dictators and despots used to exert control over their citizens.


To be sure, book bans aren’t new. From Lesléa Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies” to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, some groups have long sought to keep books they don’t like out of children’s hands. Yet past efforts pale when compared with this orchestrated moment forcing beleaguered librarians to purge dozens and even hundreds of books, some evidently only because the authors are people of color.

As this nation leans into authoritarianism, Republicans recognize this — stoking white fear is undefeated as an enemy of democracy. Those who make millions decrying cancel culture are suddenly quiet about the erasure of books in schools and libraries. To deny access to knowledge, literature, and history will leave this nation’s citizens less informed, less compassionate, and less willing to understand and address this nation’s failings.

And unlike those young Black heroes who dreamt of freedom and ran toward its light in “Steal Away Home,” there may be no escape for the rest of us.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.