Letter to the Editor:
This past weekend, an image made the rounds on social media. It was a purported list of books banned in Florida. The image was shared by commentators, celebrities, and even the president of America’s second largest teachers’ union, Randi Weingarten. In exasperation, she wrote, “Books we have taught for generations!!!!” Her shock at the removal of important and impactful literature that has stood the test of time was shared by many. Clearly, she feels that these books have value in part due to their continued relevance through time. A former student of mine, now in her mid-twenties and many miles away, sent me a link to the post of a celebrity sharing the image. My student said that she felt like crying upon seeing this list and that “we’re going backwards in time.”
Two thoughts passed through my mind as I witnessed this list shared repeatedly. The first was the letter that you printed by Burbank City Council member Konstantine Anthony just last week in which he declared book banning a “false-narrative” that is simply a “distraction.” The second was that four of the books on the list- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Of Mice and Men; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and To Kill a Mockingbird- were all banned from the curriculum in Burbank, California in 2020.
The implication of the list being shared far and wide this last week, of course, was to illustrate the terrible actions of the conservatives in Florida. And, from the responses I saw, it worked. Comments and retweets erupted on multiple platforms saying, “See! These conservatives are taking away cherished and precious literature! How awful!” Turns out, the list was fake. Weingarten tweeted a retraction. The celebrity that I was linked to did not.
What wasn’t fake were the reactions. People across the country were clearly against the removal of these cherished books and the conservatives who banned them.
This weekend wasn’t the first time that I felt a pang of irony in the wake of the school board’s decision to eliminate these books from instruction. In May of this year, Lori Lightfoot, Democrat mayor of Chicago, posed while at a bookstore in Texas holding a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. “No banning of books or thought. Ever,” she posted. In March of this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom posted a picture of himself behind a stack of books with To Kill a Mockingbird sitting on top. “Reading some banned books to figure out what these states are so afraid of,” he said, seemingly unaware that a school district in his own state removed that book. What’s more, the book in his hand, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, is only narrowly allowed for instruction in Burbank to those students who choose to take AP classes due to its inclusion on the College Board’s syllabi and the district’s desire to keep its AP accreditation. In July, Burbank’s own Adam Schiff tweeted, “I’m tired of Republicans politicizing education, demonizing our teachers, and even banning books.” He would probably be disappointed by the “Republicans” of his home district’s school board.
The repeated message being given by these Democrat politicians and those in the comments is that banning books- and these specific books- is a bad thing that Republicans and conservatives do. It’s universally viewed as a bad move.
A point often made by our board members to those students, teachers, and community members who have spoken in opposition to the book removal was that this, in fact, is NOT a “ban.” The supposed evidence to this point was that the books would continue to be available in school libraries for independent reading. A real ban, we were told, would see the books eliminated altogether. It’s a semantic point, but, if that is the case, I am unaware of any place in America where the word “ban,” according to the Burbank School Board, is being used correctly. Lightfoot was in Texas and able to find the book to pose with, so, it appears to not be truly banned there. I doubt Newsom could point to any state where the books on his table are not in a school library. Schiff also did not provide any evidence of the supposed banning that he referred to- despite what was happening in his own district.
Our board members should draft a letter to these mayors, governors, and members of Congress to correct the use of the word “ban” with the same certainty they’ve had when correcting community members of Burbank.
The truth is that Superintendent Matt Hill and the Burbank School Board did “ban” these books in the way that most use the word. There was a district-wide “pause” put on four books even before a formal complaint had been submitted. The district skirted their own complaint policy regarding instructional materials (AR 1312.2). There was no real review of how or why these books were being used nor how they could continue to be used. There was then a series of meetings where district administrators and a few parents told teachers that they were harming students by using these novels in their classrooms.
The ”pause” of these four books became a permanent ban on five specific books and then was expanded to include a broad swath of works by writers like Morrison; Maya Angelou; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and James Baldwin. This sweeping censorship and its irony were addressed beautifully by student Madison Clevenger in a letter you published in January of this year. Clevenger wrote that “…censorship cannot be the correct option. There is no fair allowance to black authors and their works… [this] inherently results in a silencing of black voices.”
Classic, beloved, and impactful books were hastily removed from classrooms without any true consideration for their value nor any academic discussion of their use. That is what most would consider a “ban.” The “pause” was reactionary, undemocratic, and devoid of academic integrity.
The actions of our Superintendent and School Board mirror those that are viewed as deplorable when they happen in Texas and Florida. Those who are critical of books being removed from classrooms in other places should honestly consider what happened in Burbank.
Lastly, though Konstantine Anthony dismisses concerns about book bans as distracting false narratives, Democrats like our Governor and Congressman are taking that bait. Maybe Anthony should let them know that he sees it as a non-issue.
Teacher of English Language Arts at John Muir Middle School