By Sereka Barlow/Alexsandra Annello
“Lover.” “Huckleberry Finn.” “The color purple.” “Beautiful new world.” “Mouse.” “Are you there, God?” “It’s me, Margaret.”
If we were to ask you what these books have in common, you could say that generations of readers have loved them all. That they were all written by award-winning authors. Maybe they were assigned to you to read at school.
But these books and dozens more also have a darker kinship. They’re on the list of books banned from schools and pulled off library shelves in the misguided hope that not talking about uncomfortable topics will make them go away.
Now, a joint project between the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region and the City of El Paso is picking up and elevating the stories that others seek to silence. Together, we’re working to establish a banned books section in every public library in El Paso so everyone can access books that represent them — and give everyone an opportunity to learn about other people, communities, and experiences.
Unfortunately, efforts to ban books are trending. In Texas, school libraries are reporting a record number of requests to remove books. Last year, a state official drew national attention when he published a list of 850 books that “may cause students discomfort, guilt, fear, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or gender.” We find that the books that fit this description are typically those that give visibility to people of color and LGBTQ+ people in both fiction and nonfiction.
It’s not just Texas. In Virginia’s governor’s election last year, one of the candidates backed a parent’s attempt to ban “mistresses” from the classroom curriculum — not to mention his lyrical and harrowing portrayal of the legacy of slavery helped its author Bringing in the Nobel Prize in Literature to Toni Morrison. Two school board members recently suggested that removing books wasn’t good enough – they should also be burned. And earlier this year, a Tennessee school board banned the graphic novel Mouse for its depiction of historical facts surrounding the Holocaust (when book burning was last in vogue).
As these cases illustrate, book ban efforts often target publications that illuminate the lived experiences of individuals and communities too often excluded from history textbooks and standard curricula: books by Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian authors and members the LGBTQ+ community, books that embrace a diversity of perspectives and experiences, books that make marginalized people feel seen and heard.
As we strive to build a world of greater justice and understanding, diverse stories like this play a vital role in giving us a common language to speak about difficult issues with nuance, grace, and empathy. It’s hard to have those moments of connection when thoughtful and honest narratives are being censored.
In honor of National Banned Books Week, we invite you to visit www.ywcaelpaso.org/ywca-banned-books to learn more and support this effort. And don’t forget to arrange a visit to the nearest library to look at a banned book and see what it’s about.
Sereka Barlow is the interim CEO of YWCA and City Representative Alexsandra Annello is representing Central El Paso.