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Books that have been the target of banning attempts.

A selection of books that have been the focus of book ban attempts.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Books teach and inspire us. Banning them is anti-democratic.

People who read don’t censor books, writes Natalie Moore, who talked with the former head of the American Library Association about the current wave of book bans across the country.

In sixth grade, my reading teacher gave me access to a book that changed my life.

I attended Sutherland Elementary, a well-resourced Chicago public school in the Beverly neighborhood, with a school library and a librarian. Ms. Traback, my teacher, stocked a large metal filing cabinet in the back of the class with books. It was our own private mini-library.

Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings caught my eye. I checked it out and couldn’t put it down, mesmerized by her travels and childhood. My father saw me reading it and told me to return it. “Why?” I asked. “Because she gets raped in the book,” he said. “But I already read that part!” I protested. I dutifully did what he told me. Briefly. A day or so later, I checked it out again and devoured it. Angelou’s words inspired this future writer.

Looking back, I appreciate that my father did not storm up to school and demand the book be removed from the shelf. Although I disagreed with his parenting method, it’s not lost on me that he didn’t inflict his opinion on other students or target Ms. Traback.

Today’s political climate is different, giving rise to book bans. The Chicago-based American Library Association says attempts to censor more than 100 titles took place in 17 states, including Illinois, which now has a ban on book bans. The number of targeted titles jumped 65% last year, the highest level ever documented by ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Most of these books reflect the voices of people of color and LGBTQIA folks.

Bans are a ‘fourth wave’ of censorship

The brilliant Tracie Hall stepped down as the head of ALA earlier this year. She’s traveled around the country and globe railing against censorship and championing intellectual freedom. One of her latest projects is Litanies for Survival, a free community library in Humboldt Park. It’s a cozy and colorful reading room filled with donated books that have been banned elsewhere or are written by authors of color.

Tracie Hall

Tracie Hall, former head of the American Library Association, which tracks book censorship efforts.

Courtesy of New City

Audre Lorde, the late poet and former librarian, is the inspiration behind Litanies for Survival (installed in partnership with The Honeycomb Network and Rootwork Gallery). On the shelves are works by June Jordan, Alice Walker and Natalie Diaz. The goal is to have 1,000 books. When I visited in May, 850 had been donated.

“It has to originate in Chicago because, of course, the first book sanctuary was started here by the Chicago Public Library,” Hall said. A book sanctuary is a political statement — you can’t check the books out.

Hall has been to countless school board hearings on censorship. They nearly always start out the same: The person suggesting the ban didn’t even read the book.

“How is that a legitimate argument you’re starting with? You don’t know what the redemptive quality is in these books, why many of these books have become canonical,” Hall said.

Themes such as sexual assault, a parent’s substance abuse, suicide and exploitation of immigrant labor may rattle some adults, but Hall argues reading about these issues may help young people: Books are an escape and affirmation.

Hall is more worried now than ever. She calls the current era the “fourth wave” of censorship.

America’s founding principles include freedom of religion, press and assembly. In part, that’s because some texts were banned in Britain.

But those freedoms didn’t extend to the enslaved. Then, during World War II, Hitler and the Nazis raided and demolished libraries. In the early 2000s, books mentioning sexual orientation and gender fluidity began to be banned.

Now, there’s “kind of voracious banning of books by LGBTQIA and people of color authors, and social justice themes, that we haven’t seen since days that we don’t even want to remember,” Hall says. States like Florida and Oklahoma, not just school and library boards, are taking up the mantle on censorship, something Hall views as a threat to democracy.

“What happens if this continues to cause the defunding of public libraries,” she says, “in the same way that we have seen and allowed the defunding of public schools?”

Thanks, Ms. Traback

My mother is a voracious reader. She never restricted what I could read. Once, a Sutherland teacher expressed concern that I was reading, at age 11, The Exorcist. My mother feigned concern to the well-meaning teacher, but let me keep scaring myself.

What Hall said makes sense: Readers don’t try to ban books, not even in their own home. In fairness to my dad, I asked him for a credit card to Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore, and he obliged. I bought Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Terry McMillan’s Mama and other literature by Black women. I admit, I didn’t understand much of Morrison’s prose as an elementary school student, but that didn’t matter. I was thrilled to read her.

My love for books shaped me. I thrived in a community that valued books as a tool for exploration and intellect. And I thank the late Ms. Traback for that metal filing cabinet that she filled with wonder.

Natalie Y. Moore is the Race, Class & Communities editor at WBEZ.

The Democracy Solutions Project is a collaboration among the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center. Our goal is to help listeners and readers engage with the democratic functions in their lives and cast an informed ballot in the November 2024 election.

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