By Anna Di Iorio-Reyes
When the pilot version of the first AP African American Studies course was released in January, it was met with significant backlash, particularly from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. DeSantis censured the pilot course, claiming it inflicted “a political agenda” on students. Near the end of the month, Florida officials announced a ban on the course.
A few weeks later, the College Board released the official overview of the AP African American Studies program for the 2023-2024 school year. However, they made notable eliminations of required material from the pilot course, including texts from several leading authors and scholars, as well as topics such as Black queer studies, intersectionality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The College Board’s decision sparked a public outcry that has yet to be resolved.
This conflict has swept through the country, reigniting the controversy over book banning in recent years. Battles over censorship are prevalent even in New York City. At The Beacon School, the topic of book banning has galvanized students and faculty.
For Beacon librarian Ann Hanin, banned books are “books that are being questioned or challenged by various groups.” This idea is further echoed by PEN America, a non-profit organization working to defend freedom of expression in the U.S. In brief, the organization defines a school book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges.”
Conservative-leaning areas and states have looked to book banning in schools as a way to protect children from supposed leftist political agendas and to support parent groups who want a larger say in school curriculum. The past two years have seen an unprecedented amount of book challenges reaching into the thousands.
“This really seems to me to be a war on libraries and education,” said Hanin. “It’s a war on freedom to read and freedom of speech and the first amendment in humongous numbers that we haven’t seen before.”
Amplified by social media, groups such as “Moms for Liberty” have inserted themselves into local politics in an attempt to advocate for parents. Already, they have 200 chapters across America.
“A parent can determine what their child can read. I don’t think it’s their right to determine what every other child can read. You have professional teachers, you have professional librarians making those decisions,” Hanin said.
Beacon sophomore Ella Smith stated that “parents are afraid of their kids learning new things that maybe they’re not aware of or just don’t agree with.” Smith is also one of the co-founders and leaders of the newly formed Banned Book Club at Beacon, along with sophomores Willow Roundy and Luna Vilarino.
“Books open up a path to analyzing the world around you and analyzing world views, so by banning books, parents are keeping their kids in a bubble,” said Vilarino.
According to data collected by PEN America from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, book bans occurred in 32 states across the U.S. and affected almost four million students. Of 1,648 banned books, 674 contained LGBTQ+ themes and 659 had protagonists or significant secondary characters of color. Texas was the state that recorded the most bans, with 751-1,000. Florida was close behind with 501-750 bans. Coming into the 2022-2023 school year, there have been 139 recorded bans in the U.S.
Though conservatives have been associated with most of these bans, censorship efforts are found across the political spectrum. While researching banned books for their club, The Banned Book Club was surprised at the sheer number of books that have been challenged, as well as who has been challenging them. “The reason Dr. Seuss was being banned was because a lot of his books had subtle anti-semitic and racist undertones, and that was actually one of the first books we encountered where more left leaning ideologies were against a book,” said Roundy.
Discriminatory implications are one of the main justifications for banning books. In addition, many in support of book bans bring up their concern for exposing impressionable children to sensitive information. In 2021 for instance, Republican Texas lawmaker Matt Krause compiled a list of roughly 850 books to challenge because he felt they “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” he said. The majority of the books Krause wanted challenged concerned, in some way, teen sexuality, gender orientation, or abortion.
However, PEN America emphasizes how these mass book bans are mostly not the result of impetuous, individual attempts to censor content. They are rather the ramifications of a broader systematic effort driven by special interest groups.
“Fortunately I’ve never had a challenge to a book in all these years,” Hanin said, and it is mostly due to Beacon’s largely liberal demographic, especially being situated in one of America’s most Democratic cities.
Beacon’s library is constantly expanding and refining its collection based on student and faculty interest or need. But before the librarians are able to fulfill requests, they have to ask themselves if the text is “relevant, is it appropriate, will it be used, does it meet student interest, does it meet teacher interest, does it fill a need in the classroom? We answer all of these questions while we make professional decisions, and that’s part of book selection,” Hanin said.
Upon meeting this criteria, books are approved and added to the shelves. Sometimes, whole sections are created for new topics so other students can learn about them too. “That’s how we build our collection,” said Hanin.
“There are a lot more banned books and banned topics at our school and I just think that’s important. And I really like that I can learn about all topics pretty much and I get to hear all different opinions,” said Smith.
“Fundamentally, learning is about being exposed to new ideas,” Roundy said. This idea is heavily encouraged throughout Beacon, and something teachers strive to achieve in each of their classes.
“Students should be exposed to different voices and different perspectives even if they disagree with them and even if the teacher disagrees with them,” said Nicholas Profeta, an English teacher at Beacon for the past two years. For the first time, he is teaching “Queer Literature: A Celebration of Strength and Struggle,” a course he’s received “a lot of really positive feedback from students” on, he said. In the class, which is only available to seniors, he teaches many titles that have been banned in one or more school districts, such as the graphic novel Gender Queer, the most widely banned book in the U.S.
Though this choice to teach “discomforting” books to students could seem controversial to some, Profeta says that “classrooms are the epitome of a safe space to explore different perspectives and voices. If it’s not happening in a classroom, there’s fewer opportunities for that to happen in a way where students can ask questions and grapple with these different realities.”
If students are not being exposed to the topics that have been challenged in schools, the question then becomes where else can they learn about these subjects in a safe and beneficial way? It is arguably harder for children to formulate their own opinions and understand issues if they are not exposed to more than one viewpoint about them.
“I think [banning books] is censorship because you’re blocking people from exploring different ideas and books hold so much value,” said Vilarino.
Contrastingly, Hanin distinguishes between banning a book and censoring information. According to her, banning is questioning or challenging a book, and “censorship is when you actually take it off the shelf and deny it access to other people,” she said.
“Banning a book is different from censorship,” agreed Profeta, “If you are banning [texts] because you don’t want students or people to have access to them, then you are in a way censoring those voices and those stories, so it depends on the motivation.”
Though people may have varying definitions of it, there is an agreement that some degree of censorship is required in most forums, especially in education.
“When it comes to something like the potential to incite violence or threats, those are things that I think should be censored. It’s not about educating people at that point; it’s about instilling fear or hatred,” said Profeta. In that context, “I think that there should be some censorship,” he said.
Continuing, Profeta added, “But I haven’t felt the need to censor anything specifically because nothing, in my opinion, that I’m presenting to students is violent, is hateful. In fact I think it’s the opposite. It’s exploring why people feel the way that they do now, and allows for critical thinking and allows for a bit more nuance and understanding our society.”
Instead of debating whether or not to ban a book, Roundy thinks the conversation should shift to how contentious books can be beneficial in schools. “I also think the discussion is really centered around censorship… but I think the discussion should be more about how we teach controversial books,” she said. Smith was actually surprised that there is not a lot of discussion about banned books themselves at Beacon, despite being taught them.
“I think books are so incredibly powerful. They have the power to do good and they could potentially have the power to do evil,” said Profeta. How a book could impact students is very dependent on how it is presented to them.
“I don’t think the job of a school is to promote an agenda or promote one way of thinking,” he said, “That is a way of reducing critical thinking because you’re not offering another side of the story.”
The influence of books is undeniable. It is why there is such polarized controversy over their access and inclusion in courses like AP African American Studies.
“I think it’s important to teach as many voices as possible. We have a very diverse society, particularly in New York City, and curriculum and conversations should reflect that too,” said Profeta.
Hanin concluded, “So we have to stand and defend our right to read.”