At the Crossroads of 21st-Century Education

Arts and Media June 2022 PREMIUM
Book Bans and Censorship

Written by Frederick Luis Aldama

“Porn in Library” runs the header in a letter-to-the-editor rant that appears in the local Texas Azle News. Here it’s Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir that’s under attack. Elsewhere across the country, it’s pretty much any fiction and nonfiction that’s non-white, non-straight, and non-Leave-it-to-Beaver gender conforming that’s under fire. Targets include many of our beloved LGBTQ+ creatives and BIPOC authors such as Ben Saenz, Toni Morrison, Art Spiegelman, Elizabeth Acevedo, cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and Jacqueline Woodson, among many others.

Censorship zealots are few, but with social media megaphones, their rants are turning random brush fires into wildfires sweeping across the land. “Concerned” parents, PTAs, and superintendents are twisting the arms of educators, librarians, and booksellers to pull books from curricula and shelves, including especially YA and graphic fiction and nonfiction that focuses on intersectional identities and themes. And this is both at the local and state level, including the recent passing of the education bill in Utah, HB374. Despite the pressure and name-calling heckles, many librarians and educators continue the hard work of holding the line to protect total freedom of expression and total sovereignty of creativity.

Censorship bullies are not new. In the world of the graphic storytelling arts (colloquially known as comic books), dramatic moves to straitjacket imagination and creativity already reared their ugly head over a half-century ago. The climate of fear that fueled those McCarthyistic witch hunts of film directors and intellectuals also sucked the air out of comics creation and innovation. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (1953), along with the publication of his Seduction of the Innocent (1954), called out comics as a leading cause of teen drug addiction, violence, and sex. For Wertham, superheroes like Batman & Robin as well as Wonder Woman also peddled pedophilia, “homosexuality,” and dangerous gender nonconformism.

The result: Comics creatives shuddered. Comics marketplaces shuttered. In 1954, fearful of plummeting sales with advertisers and distributors closing doors, the comics industry self-imposed its own Comics Code. The bottom line: without the “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” seal, your comic would wither on the vine.

Over the years, the CCA proved an effective censorship mechanism by predetermining where a creator’s imagination could go in the stories shaped and told. The CCA bludgeoned out of existence anything that wasn’t code sanitized; that is, any story world that wasn’t white, straight, and gender nonconforming.  To wit: In 1953 William Gaines published his sci-fi set Judgment Day! (with artist Joe Orlando) that featured a Black astronaut, Tarlton, engaging with robot inhabitants of Cybrinia; the story leveled a critique at segregation and institutional racism. When Gaines went to reprint the story post-Comics Code, he caught the eye of CCA Director, Charles Murphy, who told Gaines that if he wanted to reprint it he’d have to remove the Black astronaut. Going against the Code, in 1956, Gaines published the intact story in Incredible Science Fiction #33. However, this also marked the beginning of the end for Gaines and his EC Comics publishing house. (Notably, it took till 2001 for Marvel and then 2010 for DC, Archie, and Bongo comics publishers to wrest themselves finally and formally from the CCA death grip.)

Since time immemorial, surveillance by those self-declared “concerned” individuals betrays a beneficent paternalism that’s racist, sexist, and homophobic. It is my belief that these “concerned” individuals are deeply out of step with common sense, research, and science.

We know from everyday experience and common sense that youth (and humans generally) are not passive absorptive sponges. From infancy on, humans don’t just soak up and uncritically and uncreatively regurgitate all that we encounter in the world. We engage with, distill, then reconstruct all the natural, social, and cultural elements that make up the world. And we do so in ways that are actively re-creative and transformative.

We know well from advances in cognitive development psychology that, as we grow from infancy to old age, we also grow and expand our social and cultural mappings of the world and with this we feed and grow our hypothetical, counterfactual capacities in the mapping of new social, cultural, emotive, physical spaces and arrangements, including, importantly, our intersectional identities.

We know that teenhood is the time when our brain’s exploding most with synaptic activity, creating new pathways of neural connectivity that generate novel ideas and solutions. Indeed, this is the time when we most need to clear learning spaces for abundant and novel experiences, stimulations, sensations, experimentations, and explorations.

We know from advances in neurobiology, behavioral endocrinology, and sexuality studies that male and female gender identity is not fixed to biology, or birth-assigned gender. We know from social science and education research that social stigma - perpetuated and cemented by family prejudice and mainstream media that privilege gender binaries - does lead to teens struggling with gender identities and sexualities that fall outside binaries.

We know from today’s research that the more young people are given opportunities to engage and socialize with one another across gender and sexuality spectrums as well as racial groups— both in-person and through reading fiction and nonfiction—the more attitudes towards their peers change, leading from prejudice to empathy and the development of shared intergroup common goals.

As I wrap this up, I remind readers of the urgency of our call to action as Latinx educators and others - librarians, familia, and members of the broader community. Over the last decade or so, I’ve noticed the inching forward of more Latinx fiction and nonfiction in the form of comics and prose, making it to library shelves and K-12 and college classroom desks. Yet, such books are still few and far between, hovering in the low single percentages of the total amount of books published every year. And yet, at 19% of the total US population, we are the majority of historically underrepresented people in this country. The banning of the few Latinx books we have managed to get into our learning and exploring spaces will quickly result in our total absence from these spaces.

So, when librarians and teachers are forced to remove from shelves and desks books like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, House on Mango Street, Always Running, Bless Me, Ultima, Poet X, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents, and In the Dream House, among many Latinx titles that have been banned in different regions and districts across the land, what becomes cemented in their place is fear, prejudice, rigidity of thought, and the notion of who belongs and who doesn’t.

Let’s follow our common sense and science. Let’s listen to those like Bertrand Russell, who already nearly a century ago in Education and the Good Life, asked adults to be open and honest with youth about all matters, including taboo and stigmatized subjects. Let’s stop thinking of young people as passive absorptive sponges and as snowflakes easily crushed. Let’s stop acting from fear that forecloses possibilities. And let’s start thinking and treating young people as they are: actively engaged and active recreators of the world. That is, let’s act with intelligence, courage, and creativity. Let’s stand with our fellow educators and librarians to continue to open creative spaces that allow all youth to explore and grow fluid, messy, exuberant, complex patterns of thought, behaviors, identities, and experiences that will lead to their innovating in the areas of literature, art, science, and technology.

Suggested actions against censorship

•  Support your educators and librarians in their fight to keep and build a diverse range of books that represent the diverse range of identities and experiences

•  Get yourself on review committees for books and textbooks at schools and libraries.

•  Actively involve yourself with discussions about the societal repercussions of book bans with family members, especially youth

•  Read all banned book titles

•  Support entities like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and the Library Freedom Project 

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