From Huckleberry Finn to the Harry Potter series, parents have pushed to toss books they find objectionable out of school libraries for decades. But there’s a different, more organized feel to this latest wave of censorship—and the resistance to it.
Social media, said author George M. Johnson. His memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, about growing up Black and queer, is one of the titles that parents have objected to, citing its discussion of sexual assault and its depiction of consensual sexual encounters.
“When Toni Morrison was getting banned 30 years ago, there was no social media, there was no instant reaction that she could make to a person challenging her book,” Johnson said during a panel discussion at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin last week that focused on efforts across the country to remove books from school libraries. Often, the targeted books are, like Johnson’s, written by authors who are LGBTQ, racial minorities, or both, and/or feature characters from those groups.
These days, social media can be a potent weapon in the fight against censorship, said Johnson, who identifies as nonbinary. Thanks to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, “people can in real time say what our book means to them, people can really challenge those who are challenging our book.”
Of course, social media also “cuts both ways,” said Mike Hixenbaugh, an investigative reporter for NBC News and a writer and host of “Southlake,” a podcast that explores the culture wars in a small Texas city, including book banning. Parents challenging books in one town can get help and inspiration from like-minded people a few states away, he said during the panel discussion.
“It’s the same list of books that’s going viral,” Hixenbaugh said. Meanwhile, some books that feature similar scenes and storylines as the ones targeted for censorship remain under the radar, he said. “There are certain books that, if the parents knew about them, they would be going after them as well. They just haven’t made it on a list.”
“Like my second book,” Johnson chimed in, referring to We Are Not Broken, a novel published last year. “I’m shocked they haven’t found out [yet], but somebody will, and be like, ‘Oh, we got to get rid of this one too.”
According to a recent nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, school districts across the country have recently seen an uptick of requests to ban from schools books about LGBTQ characters, race, and racism.
Parents in some communities have argued that the books are inappropriate for children because they contain sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate content, or teach white students to hate themselves. And 15 percent to 30 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders agree with parents that some of that kind of content should be off-limits for K-12 students in books available in school libraries, according to the survey.
Parents square up against students in book ban debates
In general, social media has been a more-effective tool for those fighting against book censorship than for people trying to ban books, in part, because students can easily share their experiences with the titles on the ban list, Johnson said. “We’re watching the students have a voice and be able to utilize their voice.”
The SXSW EDU panel addressed how parents have stood up at school board meetings and read passages from All Boys Aren’t Blue that describe gay sex to argue that the text is pornography and therefore should not be allowed in schools. In response to those criticisms, the panel talked about how students at some of those same meetings have pointed to sections in the book on sexual abuse, saying access to that information gave them the courage to finally name their abusers.
“The power of that storytelling counteracts” the criticisms of those who want to see the book censored, Johnson said. “And I think more of those stories are making it into the world because of social media, [rather] than [just] the couple of parents who haven’t actually read the book yelling and screaming and trying to ban it.”