Today's Book Bans Might be Most Dangerous YetRoundup
tags: censorship, teaching history, critical race theory, Book Bans
Jonna Perrillo is Professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of Educating the Enemy: Teaching Nazis and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands. She is the incoming Council historian for the National Council of Teachers of English.
Last year, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause (R) made national news when he released a list of more than 800 books that he wants to prohibit schools and libraries from carrying, inspiring conservative school districts across the nation to step up their own efforts. The majority of these books feature characters who, like many young Americans, are people of color, LGBTQ or both. Nationally, we are experiencing what many educators, librarians and journalists accurately have dubbed an unprecedented wave of censorship.
Of course, this is not the first time politicians and citizens have mobilized to ban books. During the Cold War, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his allies waged a variety of censorship campaigns, with some Americans even participating in book-fueled bonfires. Political officials and mobilized parents, with conservative organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion, pulled “subversive” books from library and store shelves in the late 1940s and early 1950s and intimidated librarians, teachers and store managers to keep them from stocking them.
But beyond a shared tenor of anxiety, Cold War book-banning campaigns and those of today differ substantially in strategy and effect. McCarthy-era book censorship was part of a much larger, coordinated campaign that used the federal and state governments to restrict other “subversive” art, including film and television. And, such efforts were international. In fact, one of the most successful efforts was the removal of books from Overseas Libraries, a network of American libraries under the jurisdiction of the State Department that served as an arm of cultural diplomacy.
But through it all, young people’s literature often escaped the attention of censors and, in fact, grew more diverse and more focused on young adolescents as an audience, anticipating the genre that we now call “young adult literature.”
This is because McCarthy-era book bans often focused on mass-adopted textbooks as the easiest way to control what students read. They cared most about two issues: anti-communism and race. Often, the two went hand in hand as civil rights activists were accused of holding communist beliefs. Textbooks, particularly social studies textbooks, that critiqued capitalism, economic equality or the health of American democracy were withdrawn from the classroom throughout the 1950s, and their publication was stopped entirely at times.