Banning books is the new ‘blackface’

When my daughter changed schools at age 9, she was a bit apprehensive – she had attended a small Steiner Waldorf school since she was a child and public school seemed intimidating. But she came home after her first day raving about her new teacher, Mr. Dawson. He was young and fun, loved pop music and Dr Who, and brought every lesson to life. Having previously hated reading, she devours novels in a few weeks, inspired by her brilliant and visionary teacher.

The following year, Mr. Dawson left the teaching profession to pursue his writing career full-time; young adult fiction. And to become Mrs. Dawson Juno Dawson, best known today as the best-selling author of 23 books for young adults and prominent LGBTQ+ activist.

Today, one of Juno Dawson’s titles, This book is gayis the ninth most banned book in the United States – due to its unambiguous content about sex, gender and teenage relationships.

“The idea that my book could ‘make kids gay’ is obviously ridiculous,” Dawson wrote in the new statesman. “If that were true, many more teenagers would identify as Gruffalo.” Surreal Pulitzer winner Toni Morrison, whose literary prizes are so plentiful they need their own Wikipedia page, is on the same banned list, for her debut novel, The bluest eye.

The book ban is back. This thing we associate with the Nazis and the Spanish Inquisition is now rife in post-Trump America – and while they haven’t yet had a real bonfire outside the Library of Congress, in some states, librarians have become foot soldiers in the culture wars. The Christian right – the Muricans who denounce guns, denounce the Bible and ban abortion and who lead much of the series – lead the way. The First Amendment means books can’t be banned nationwide by the government, but it doesn’t protect books from local bans, usually starting in the most restricted places, schools and libraries. Irony.

While books were once banned because they contained straight white sex – Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Aldous Huxley, even JD Salinger were once banned in Ireland – nowadays the books that are banned are those that portray black, queer, and trans sex. When in 2018 Malala Yousafzai said the thing that scares extremists the most is “a girl with a book”, she was talking about the Taliban. What seems scariest to American extremists is a queer teenager with a book.

How strange to ban an item the size of a handbag made of paper, ink and glue, as if by banning the object, the ideas and information it contains can be contained, cannot escape, cannot permeate the minds of those who seek it. In Belarus, Orwell 1984 is prohibited. In the old days, 1984 was also banned in China for being anti-Communist and in parts of the United States for being pro-Communist. Today, although the purpose of censorship has changed, the impulse to suppress remains the same. It’s so – backslidden. Like blackface or thalidomide or thinking smoking is glamorous; an uneducated idea best left in the past.

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