By Sereka Barlow/Alexsandra Annello
“Beloved.” “Huckleberry Finn.” “The Color Purple.” “Brave New World.” “Maus.” “Are you there God?” “It’s me, Margaret.”
If we were to ask you what these books have in common, you might say they all have been beloved by generations of readers. That they were all written by award winning authors. Maybe they were assigned reading for you in school.
But these books, and dozens more, share a darker kinship as well. They are on the list of books that have been banned from schools and pulled from library shelves in the misguided hope that not talking about uncomfortable subjects will make them go away.
Now a joint project between YWCA El Paso del Norte Region and the City of El Paso is embracing and elevating the stories that others want to silence. Together, we are working to create a Banned Book section in every public library in El Paso so that everyone can access books that represent them – and so that everyone has the chance to learn about people, communities, and experiences different from their own.
Sadly, efforts to ban books are trending. In Texas, school libraries are reporting a record number of requests to remove books. Last year, a state representative attracted national attention when he released a list of 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” We find the books that meet that description are usually the ones that give visibility to people of color and LGBTQ+ people, both in fiction and nonfiction.
It’s not just Texas. In Virginia’s governor’s race last year, one of the candidates embraced a parents attempt to ban “Beloved” from classroom curricula – never mind that it’s lyrical and devastating portrait of the legacy of slavery helped earn its author, Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize in Literature. Two school board members recently suggested that removing books isn’t good enough – they should be burned, too. And earlier this year a Tennessee school board banned the graphic novel “Maus” for its depiction of historical facts around the Holocaust (when book burning was last in vogue).
As these instances illustrate, book banning efforts frequently target publications that illuminate the lived experiences of individuals and communities who are too often excluded in history textbooks and standard curriculum: books by Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Asian authors and by members of the LGBTQ+ community, books that embrace a diversity of viewpoints and experiences, books that make people who are marginalized feel seen and heard.
As we seek to build a world of greater equity and understanding, diverse stories like these play a vital role in giving us a shared language to talk about difficult subjects with nuance, grace and empathy. It is 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 these efforts. And don’t forget to schedule a visit to your nearest library to check out a banned book and see what it’s all about.
Sereka Barlow is the YWCA interim CEO and City Rep. Alexsandra Annello represents Central El Paso.