Celeste Headlee paused as she contemplated how Black authors have for decades endured the banning of their books in schools, libraries, on shelves across the country and even in prisons.
In the summer of 2020 and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, a major publishing house turned down the opportunity to obtain Headlee’s book Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism – and How to Do It.
“They said they had enough books on race and that this topic is covered for us,” Headlee said. “It was very surprising since we were offering it in the summer of 2020.”
Headlee, who co-hosts the Retro Report on PBS and is affectionately known as the “light-skinned Black Jew,” ultimately sold her book to Harper Collins Publishing, who published it in 2021.
She counts among dozens of Black authors whose works are being pulled from school libraries under the pretext that they’re teaching critical race theory.
As noted in a recent report, most of the books targeted don’t teach critical race theory but are written by and about people of color.
According to the American Library Association, its Office for Intellectual Freedom reported that 273 books were affected by censorship attempts in 2020, many with content highlighting race, gender, and sexuality.
Since September 2021, at least 230 challenges have been made against Black-authored books.
Tiffany D. Jackson, the author of the 2018 novel Monday’s Not Coming, about missing girls of color, remains in the throes of a similar controversy.
Tat Bellamy-Walker, news writer for Yahoo!, reported that during a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, parents demanded that officials ban Jackson’s work for “sexual content.” In an email to Bellamy-Walker, Jackson, a Black woman, said the book discusses friendship, dyslexia, community, healing, and mentions sex, though it’s not acted.
Further, celebrated Black children’s author and illustrator Jerry Craft told NBC News that he received a message saying a school library in Texas pulled some of his books.
“I was caught off guard,” said Craft, the Newberry Medal-winning author of the 2019 graphic novel New Kid.
“I felt bad for the kids because I know how much they love New Kid and Class Act. I know what my school visits do. I felt bad if there was going to be some kids that would not be able to take advantage of that.”
NBC reported that the individual who sent the message to Craft hailed from Katy, Texas, a town near Houston that’s come under fire for attempts to limit the public’s access to books that teach about racism.
In October, the Katy Independent School District made headlines for temporarily yanking two of Craft’s books, which tell the stories of Black boys who experience racism in schools, from school libraries and postponing his virtual visit.
“Apparently, I’m teaching critical race theory,” Craft wrote in response to a parent confused about the ban, citing the decades-old academic and legal framework that teaches about racism in America.
The banning of works by Black authors extends to American prisons.
Andy Chan and Michelle Dillon, who serve on the board of the nonprofit organization Books to Prisoners, said the need for educational and self-empowering materials in prisons remains vast.
In an op-ed, they contended that prisons routinely impede access for arbitrary and biased reasons despite the need.
The duo pointed out that it’s a practice long overdue for public examination.
“A recent rejection from South Central Correctional Facility (SCCF) in Clifton, Tenn., epitomizes this issue. In late December, SCCF returned a package of rejected books to Books to Prisoners,” the pair said.
“Inside were three books we had sent to an incarcerated reader and a note scrawled by a prison guard reading simply: ‘Malcolm X not allowed.’ The offending book, Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary, is a Scholastic biography intended for grades 7-12,” Chan and Dillon said.
“Prison censorship is still shocking to us, even after years of work with Books to Prisoners, but it rarely surprises us now.”
Headlee noted that even the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maya Angelou endured censorship.
“For quite some time, Maya Angelou was called the most banned author in America,” Headlee said.
“Her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was banned several times. She is an author who won the Pulitzer Prize and an Emmy. But there was one case in which they claimed her book caused bitterness and hatred toward White people. So here we are again. It has happened again and again. You can’t get through a decade in the United States without seeing books by Black authors banned.”
She said her book could offer some assistance.
“It’s meant to diffuse some of the apprehension that people feel about talking about race without getting into an argument,” Headlee said. “And maybe make a little progress.”