Book banning fever heats up in red states

Schools boards and city officials in Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee want to purge "objectionable" books

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published January 26, 2022 12:35PM (EST)

Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Display of banned books or censored books at Books Inc independent bookstore in Alameda, California, October 16, 2021. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Amid the GOP's national campaign to purge "leftist ideology" from public schools, local officials across the nation are now banning certain books that deal with race, sex, and gender, from school shelves. 

On Thursday, a Missouri school board voted 4-3 to formally pull Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" from high school libraries in the district. The book, which tells the story of a young Black girl growing up in the Great Depression, includes passages that describe incest and child molestation. Central to the book's premise is the narrator's struggle with society's white standards of beauty, which cause her to develop an inferiority complex around the color of her skin. 

Wentzville School Board member Sandy Garber told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that she voted against the book to shield her children from obscenity. "By all means, go buy the book for your child," Garber said. "I would not want this book in the school for anyone else to see."

The decision comes despite pushback from district staff and residents, who after a committee review advised the board that banning the novel would "infringe on the rights of parents and students to decide for themselves if they want to read this work of literature."

Kris Kleindienst, owner of Left Bank Books in St. Louis, told a Fox affiliate that the board's vote sweeps important discussions of race and sexual abuse under the rug.

"Kids are growing and developing and should have access to as much material as is out there," Kleindienst said. "It shouldn't be the decision of a few parents what kids should read."

RELATED: "Moms for Liberty" group demands schools ban books with "sexy" pictures of seahorses

The book banning fever has reached a pitch in Mississippi this week as well. 

Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee is currently engaged in a budgetary standoff with Madison County Library System. McGee is attempting to deprive the school board of $100,000 in funding because the Republican wants to see a spate of LGBTQ-themed books banned from school libraries.

Tonja Johnson, executive director for the Madison County Library System, told The Mississippi Free Press that McGee is withholding the money due to his own personal beliefs. "He explained his opposition to what he called 'homosexual materials' in the library, that it went against his Christian beliefs, and that he would not release the money as the long as the materials were there," Johnson said. "He told me that the library can serve whoever we wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above."

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According to the Free Press, McGee specifically demanded the immediate removal of the "The Queer Bible," an essay collection featuring the voices of queer figures like Elton John, Munroe Bergdorf, Tan France, George Michael and Susan Sontag.

And in Tennessee, the Williamson County Schools committee has also joined the censorship fold, imposing restrictions on several different books in light of conservative backlash. 

After a review of 31 different texts, the committee on Tuesday "removed one book" from the school shelves and "restricted seven others," according to The Tennessean. The committee specifically removed "Walk Two Moons," a 1994 fiction novel written by Sharon Creech. The book centers on the story of a 13-year-old girl with Native American heritage who is reckoning with the disappearance of her mother while traveling from Ohio to Idaho. 

The books were reportedly first called into question by the Williamson County chapter of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing advocacy group that advocates for "parents' rights" in education. The committee concluded that the text contained "objectionable content," which according to Moms for Liberty, included "stick figures hanging, cursing and miscarriage, hysterectomy/stillborn and screaming during labor."

RELATED: Ta-Nehisi Coates on banning books: "That's no longer education, that's indoctrination"

The bans in Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee are part of a larger right-wing movement to crack down on books with "objectionable" works often featuring Black and LGTBQ+ themes. According to the American Library Association (ALA), between June and September of last year, the U.S. saw "155 unique censorship incidents" in cities and districts across the nation. 

"We're seeing an unprecedented volume of challenges in the fall of 2021," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, last year. "In my twenty years with ALA, I  can't recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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