An increasing amount of US parents are claiming that schoolbooks are vulgar or harmful to children. This is causing a tense debate that could be a factor in the upcoming elections in the US.
Yael Levin-Sheldon is a mother of two, who lives in Richmond, Virginia, recently was introduced to a book an instructor at a local school introduced into the classroom. She took note of the book’s title, The Black Friend: On being a more white Person.
The title, as Levin claims that it is racist and isn’t the kind of book that ought to be made available to kids in public schools.
“Now think of it saying, ‘on being a better black person’,” she added. “Would you agree?
Levin-Sheldon serves as the Virginia chapter president of the conservative parent rights association No Left Turn in Education. The group has compiled an inventory of books it claims contain material that is “used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students” and “divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology”.
It includes the dystopian Margaret Atwood book The Handmaid’s Tale and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. In The Black Friend, a New York Times bestseller written of Frederick Joseph recounting his challenges as a student of color in an predominantly white high school it’s not on the list. At least, not right now.
Joseph’s books that offer critical perspectives on issues such as US race or history have gained new attention in library curricula for schools and collections in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 as well as efforts in education to address issues of ongoing race discrimination within the US. No Left Turn contends that the texts are best taught within the context of alongside other texts that offer the reader with a different (and believed to offer a more positive) perspective on America’s history. The parents, according to Levin-Sheldon that they should be given the option to opt out of these classes.
Others, however, especially those that deal with sexuality of the human race in explicit detail and are in fact prohibited The group says.
“When it comes to pornography and paedophilia,” Levin-Sheldon states, “that’s when we want those books removed.”
She adds that this is the only thing the group wants. It’s not that different from what advocates for free speech and educators claim they’d like and a dialogue between teachers, parents and school librarians that balance the interests of education and morals and done with the best interest of children in mind.
However, in the real world it’s not always been this way.
A growing number of complaints
A state legislator from Texas came up with an extensive list of over 800 books that he believed can cause students to experience “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” due to their gender or race. An Dallas Morning News review found that 97 of the 100 first books listed on the list , were written by women, ethnic minorities as well as LGBTQ authors.
The school in San Antonio pulled 400 of the books from its libraries without a formal review process or complaints from parents.
An Tennessee school board has rescinded Maus which was a Graphic novel that won the Pulitzer Prize that focuses on the Holocaust that was removed from the eighth grade program due to vulgarity and anthropomorphised mice.
Within Polk County, Florida, schools took away 16 books that were awaiting reviews, including award-winning books The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini as well as Beloved by Toni Morrison, because they were deemed to contain “obscene material”.
The challenges have come from the left too. A school district in Seattle, Washington, dropped the 1960 Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum due to the depiction of race relations as well as the use to describe racism.
Characters that use racist epithets has also led to efforts in the past year to reduce the use in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in schools located in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, and Burbank, California.
The American Library Association keeps track of the amount of complaints made against school libraries’ books and has observed a dramatic rise over the last year. Based on preliminary data between September and November of 2021 , the association recorded 330 complaints. The total number of incidents reported for all of 2019 the year in which school districts across the US were present for the whole year was 377. This suggests that the 2021 figures likely to be higher than the previous ones.
The cumulative impact, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director for the organization’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, is a significant affront to the open debate and learning across the country.
“We are a government, a society that purports to protect freedom of speech, the freedom to access information to make up our own minds, to engage in a broadly liberal education,” she states. “And we’re now finding that we have a movement to shut down that conversation, to deny those rights, particularly to young people.”
Based on Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the parent association Moms for Liberty, the increase in interest from parents can be attributed, at a minimum, in part, to school policies on remote learning that were implemented during the Covid-19 epidemic. The first time they assert that many parents got an in-depth view of the curriculum their children were taught , and they did not like it. She refers to it as “Covid lemonade,” because the disease contained one bright side.
“We had never really been able to get parents as invigorated as they have been seeing the curriculum up close and personal while they were sitting with their child doing the work,” she adds. “We saw it as an opportunity to really engage parents even more and to get them involved in their children’s education.”
Social media has also proven to be an effective influence on the scope of movement. Some activists claim it has helped groups organize across the US and has helped parents understand that they’re not the only ones in their concerns. On the other hand groups such as those of the American Library Association have found that the same books mentioned in complaints are resurfacing and again, and lists – similar to those that are on No Left Turn websites. No Left Turn websites – are distributed online.
“Social media is amplifying and driving both the messages of these groups that are pursuing a particular agenda, as well as individual challenges that crop up in a community,” Caldwell-Stone explains.
The core of the matter is a dispute over the importance of schools, parents and the rights of children to be in the class. Both Levin-Sheldon as well as Justice assert that up when children reach the age of 18, they are considered minors and parents must be able review the concepts and subjects that they expose their kids even if it’s not supervision the parents would like to do at their home as well as in their classrooms.
The proponents of free-speech argue that libraries are designed to be a resource for all students not just those who have the most prudent parents. Even though they’re not adults, they do have rights and a right to choose. An open dialog between teachers, parents and librarians is crucial however, if teens are seeking information on a topic that is of their interest, they should be given access to the information.
“There’s this notion that young people are in search of the most illicit material in every area of their lives, all the time,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, an author’s free-speech organization. “I don’t think that’s true. I think people go to a library there’s usually an alignment between reader and text.”
The Politics of Anger
The push to make a decision on the removal of certain books in schools has turned into an international movement, with the attention of both conservative and mainstream media outlets, the tempers are becoming more and more heated.
A meeting of the school board in Flagler County, Florida, to discuss the demise of the novel All Boys Aren’t Blue devolved into a series of obscene demonstrations, and then counterprotests. (The Board’s choice to accept the book’s use was denied by an official of the county).
Meetings in other regions of the US have been postponed or cancelled due to threats to public officials. In a school board’s session at Carmel, Indiana, last July, in which parents read explicit passages from books thought should be taken away from the library at their school The man was arrested after a gun dropped from his pocket.
Levin quickly takes the opportunity to say that her organization does not accept such conduct from parents and wants to educate the members of their group to act “respectfully and professional” at school board meetings. Justice also agrees with her group, calling them “joyful warriors”, but says that parents have every reasons to be furious.
“Yeah, they’re upset,” she states. “Their kids aren’t learning in school. They’re sending their kids to school and their kids are learning more about – who knows? Not reading and writing.”
Anger can be a powerful political force and the conservative political class and legislatures that are dominated by Republicans have tried to harness the anger.
In November of last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governorship campaigning on parental rights and education. One of his TV ads showed a mother who objected to Morrison’s Beloved’s teaching in her son’s high school English class.
As November’s midterm elections get closer and the controlling the US Congress as well as a variety of states at stake, more and more candidates from the right are taking note.
Matt Krause, the Texas legislator who has the 850-book list Matt Krause is running for the position of state attorney general. On Tuesday it was announced that the Indiana State Senate approved legislation that allows the legal punishment of library staff accused of dissemination of “material harmful to minors”. It is believed that the Oklahoma legislature is currently considering the possibility of banning public libraries from selling any publications about gender identity or sexual orientation.
Friedman warns that attempts to eliminate books could affect librarians and school officials who may take part with “soft censorship” by pre-emptively taking books they fear will cause controversy. This could be a deterrent on publishers and authors who are likely to avoid controversial subjects, and restrict their creativity.
“If you are telling a story that’s on the borderline of any of these issues right now, you’re going to think twice about writing in a way that might get banned or draw national attention,” the author declares. “You’re not going to publish that book; you’re not going to give that talk publicly about it.”
Ashley Hope Perez is one among the authors who are feeling pressure. In the latest edition of Texas Monthly, she describes her experience of being harassed because her novel Out of Darkness was criticised for being sexually explicit in a the meeting with a board of school teachers close to Austin.
“Ugly phone messages calling me a ‘degenerate piece of -‘, emails that were little more than expletives strung together, social media comments saying I was ‘literally SATAN’ and suggestions that I hang myself,” she writes. “The attacks on Out of Darkness say far more about our cultural moment than they do about my book.”
She explains she wrote her novel published in 2006 without much controversy. The political landscape appears to have changed dramatically since when it was first published.