Want to save our books from censorship? George M. Johnson on how to fight bans

In a two-part conversation with theGrio, the bestselling author offers insights on the political long game behind book bans—and offers counter strategies to fight censorship.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part interview with George M. Johnson; read the first segment here. It’s also the first installment of theGrio’s series on the book ban debate, You Can’t Ban Black.

Screenshot: NEON x GLAAD (YouTube); Photo: The “First Banned Books Read Out” in New York, April 1, 1982 (AP Photo/Carlos Rene Perez)

So, you’re concerned about the escalating rate of book bans across the country—but now what? In an America where voting rights, free speech, and abortion access are once again hanging in the balance, it may seem wisest to choose your battles.

That would be true if the assault on books wasn’t yet another facet of an increasingly coordinated right-wing assault on civil liberties and the First Amendment, as bestselling author George M. Johnson (pronouns: “they/them”) explained to us in the introduction to theGrio’s ongoing conversation on book bans.

If that assertion strikes you as alarmist, consider the evidence. As bestselling Black queer writer Michael Arceneaux noted in a recent op-ed:

For all the awkward phrasing and nonsensical claims, this is not a movement to be dismissed as irrelevant. The American Library Association said its Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 273 books were affected by censorship attempts in 2020, many with content that highlighted race, gender and sexuality. Between September and the start of this year alone alone, however, there have been at least 230 such challenges, the organization said in an email to NBC News — a marked acceleration.

Credit: The Week

Now, consider the breadth of those hundreds of challenges. In the past six months alone, book bans have been proposed or enacted in local school districts in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington State, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

In short, an overwhelmingly conservative base of parents, members of local school boards and even librarians in nearly two-thirds of the country are attempting to censor the content a vast majority of children in their districts have access to. And in many cases, they’re succeeding.

Seeing red yet? You should be, since the majority—but not all—of the above states are considered “red states“—several of which also participated in opposing the 2020 election results. That alone has compelled some to flag the revival of book banning as part of the GOP’s larger effort to create a “red wave.” This is for good reason, as tellingly, many of the texts targeted affirm ideas that challenge the status quo—or, at the very least, challenge conservative comfort zones.

Like Johnson, Arceneaux specifically identified this wave as a “culture war against marginalized authors,” noting:

There’s a pattern in the books they choose: These are texts about Blacks folks and other marginalized groups. A representative list of the targeted works can be found on the site of No Left Turn in Education, an organization that has identified around 75 books it claims “are used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students.” The books are grouped in three categories (“critical race theory,” “anti-police,” and “comprehensive sexuality education”) and, curiously, are covered with Black faces, queer people, and women who dare to believe they deserve autonomy over their own bodies. These books “demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history, and divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology,” No Left Turn says.

Credit: The Week

We won’t give you an exhaustive rundown of the books currently on No Left Turn‘s list, but it should be noted that titles currently under its Critical Race Theory category include Taye Diggs‘ innocuous-yet-inclusive picture book Chocolate Me, alongside equally adorable titles like Mahogany L. Browne‘s Woke Baby and Ibram X. Kendi‘s Antiracist Baby.

Also in the CRT category is the preschool-age children’s book Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race, penned by early childhood experts as part of a series intended to help toddlers gain an early understanding of topics that also include gender, consent, and body positivity. While the other books in that series have yet to make No Left Turn’s list, a picture book about pronouns titled What Are Your Words? has been flagged by the group for promoting ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education.’

Johnson’s memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue has also been placed in that category, though it remains in question how much of the right-wing group has ever fully engaged with it. As attacks against the book have escalated, focus has exclusively been on Johnson’s recollections of their own experience with grooming and sexual assault during childhood. Those relatively brief excerpts have been propagandized as justification for excising the book from school libraries and curriculums; an ironically incomplete education on the much-needed lessons the memoir has to impart.

“I’m encouraging adults to read the entire book…like, you can’t throw out my entire life because you don’t like two sections of it.” Johnson asserts, recalling a few incidents where conservative parents who did read the book have publicly posted about how those segments have been taken out of context.

“One was like, ‘I had gotten ten chapters in and still hadn’t gotten to the part that I knew I was about to get to, but by that point…I was hooked,” recounts Johnson. “Then, I got to that part and realized that every single person who is fighting this left out the context that George is trying to teach kids about what sexual assault is and how to recognize it, and only used the story to show what grooming looks like if you are a kid,'” they continue, adding, “She was like, ‘This is ridiculous.'”

Another concerned mom also finds it ridiculous.

Katie Paris is a white, Ohio-based mother, left-leaning former media strategist and co-founder of Book Ban Busters, where she and other parents are leading an effort to ensure kids get “an honest, accurate education.”

Speaking with Virginia’s WUSA9, Paris said, “I just want to be clear here…The books being targeted are almost entirely about Black people and LGBT people. If sexual content was the issue, they’d be targeting Shakespeare or Ernest [Hemingway]; the Bible and we’d be standing up against banning those books, too.”

Writer Kelly Jensen breaks down the conflict even further in an anti-censorship toolkit published by independent editorial book site Book Riot, stating: “It is in no way about fear of their children learning about groups different than them. It’s about white supremacy. It’s about power. Calling it anything less than that diminishes the responsibility there is on gatekeepers to uphold intellectual freedom and the First Amendment.”

In fact, Jensen even posits that the now 40-year-old celebration of Banned Books Week, while bringing much-needed attention to the sustained attack on literature, is too narrow a focus in the face of an insidious attack on freedom of thought and speech. “It fails to account for the very real humans whose livelihoods are at stake for doing what’s right,” Jensen writes. “Instead, it further serves white supremacy and power, centering the voices of outrage, rather than those whose voices have been forgotten, ignored, or suppressed completely.”

So, if we recognize book bans are a political long game being played in our schools and libraries, what can those of us invested in anti-censorship do to fight back? In addition to becoming more active in our local school districts and at the ballot box, Johnson has several strategies we can use right now.

“I think one, purchasing the book always helps,” they say, explaining retailers are more driven by sales than political posturing. “Two, reading the book and saying what the book meant to you. [In the case of All Boys Aren’t Blue], I think that has been one of the biggest tools…students who had been sexually assaulted, students who went through many of the same things [the book describes] going to school board meetings and saying on record who their abusers were—and saying that the book is what helped them name their abusers.

“They went on record to challenge the notion that the book has no merit by saying: ‘This is the actual merit of this book because this book changed my life…now I’ve been able to name the abuser in my family; I’ve been able to name the abuser in my life. I’ve been able to do many of these things because I read it in George’s book and knew I had the agency to say something,'” they add. “So I think saying how the book does have merits—how all the books have merit—and how they have helped you in any way is a huge thing too.”

Johnson also encourages us to harness the power we have at the grassroots level, where we can create more organic access points to those targeted books. Installing free libraries, donating to LGBTQ+ centers and alternative places that may house books, and ensuring those books are available as resources young adults can access on their own are all constructive means of circumventing censorship.

“My ultimate hope is that in them trying to ban it in one place, it only creates ten more access points for kids to get the books,” they explain. “So what ends up happening is you may ban it from a library, but now big box retailers, indie places…like, it only will create more access points for kids to get to it.”

Lastly, says Johnson, be prepared, as they believe the book ban battle is being very strategically poised to be sent up to the Supreme Court.

“Know the law,” they say. “This is protected; the students’ rights are protected because of [Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico] in 1982. So it’s important that we use that. Because as they’re trying to pass laws against the books and pass these laws, they know what they’re doing. They want to challenge that Supreme Court case while they have a conservative bench. And so, it’s important that we are using our precedent from those cases to fight against it, as well.” Johnson believes the censorship debate is destined to parallel the trajectory of Roe v. Wade. “It’s not over, and it’s getting really dangerous,” they warn.

“I think that’s why they’re making the illegal laws, because they know that the laws are illegal, know that they’ll be challenged on the lower court and have to get sent up. I think that’s their last tactic,” they explain. “So I do think at some point, we’re going to court, and I’m definitely going” adds Johnson, quipping: “Just like it was Brown v. Board of Education, if it’s George v. Board of Education, I’m fine with it—let’s do it.”

Maiysha Kai is Lifestyle Editor of theGrio, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in the fashion and entertainment industries, a love of great books and aesthetics, and the indomitable brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor of the YA anthology Body (Words of Change series).

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