By Jerry Mitchell and Ann Marie Cunningham
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting for Mississippi Today
Mississippi author Angie Thomas has sold millions of copies of her books, but the Mississippi Library Commission kept readers from checking out her most popular work, “The Hate U Give.”
On Monday, MCIR questioned commission officials about officials barring Mississippians from checking out Thomas’ novel from the lending library in Jackson. (Each copy was marked “To Be Reviewed”.) On Wednesday, all copies and the movie adaptation were available, except for an annotated version as part of the Mississippi Reads project. (Ebony Lumumba, associate professor of English and chair of the English department at Jackson State University, wrote the annotated version.)
The commission is hardly alone in removing books from shelves. Thomas’ book and a number of others that deal with race have been barred in Mississippi and across the nation in the name of keeping “harmful material” away from minors. So far, those “harmful” books include a children’s book about civil rights icon Rosa Parks and a graphic novel that seeks to help children understand the Holocaust.
Thomas, who is speaking at Mississippi’s first Banned Book Festival on March 25 in conversation with Ebony Lumumba, called the barring of her book “disappointing, especially in a country where people should have the right to read whatever they want to read. And it’s even more disappointing in a state such as Mississippi, which needs to learn from its past to understand its present.”
Madison County schools also have kept students from reading Thomas’ novel, according to a 2021-2022 survey by PEN America. Nearly three-fourths of the 20 books barred were written by authors of color, including “The Hate U Give,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian.”
Lindsey Beckham — a mother of five who co-founded the Madison County chapter of the Moms for Liberty and worked with others to make sure certain books were taken off the shelves — denied that race was the issue behind the barring of these books. “’The Hate U Give’features a lot of violence,” she said, and she also cited a graphic rape scene in Toni Morrison’s work.
A series of new Florida laws, championed by its Gov. Ron DeSantis, caused some books to be barred. For instance, one new law requires school librarians to remove any books that are considered pornographic or “harmful” to minors — or face felony charges. Mississippi lawmakers are debating similar legislation.
Florida also passed the “Stop Woke” Act, which bars any instruction that causes students to feel guilt or psychological distress on the basis of race or sex. Critics have labeled this law an attempt to “whitewash” history.
On Jan. 26, a substitute teacher in Florida tweeted that school officials had “removed every single book from my children’s classrooms.” After he posted a video of the empty bookshelves in his classroom, school officials fired him.
In a March 8 press conference, DeSantis joined forces with the Florida Moms for Liberty and called talk of banning books a “hoax.” Instead, he decried “pornographic and inappropriate materials that have been snuck into our classrooms and libraries to sexualize our students.” Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. declared that education should be “about the pursuit of truth, not woke indoctrination.”
Last August, officials in the Keller Independent School District in Texas pulled dozens of books from the library shelves, including an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”and the Bible. Texas school leaders defended their actions, saying these books were being reviewed, and that such a review needed to take place to protect children from “sexually explicit content.”
On March 8, two bills passed the Mississippi House and Senate, proposing age restrictions on libraries’ digital content. But in both House Bill 1315 and Senate Bill 2346, the language is so broad that “I’m pretty sure we just banned the Bible,” an independent state representative told the Mississippi Free Press. Both are headed to conference with House and Senate negotiators.
Under these bills, Mississippi could ban digital books with “sexually oriented” material from public and school libraries. Some lawmakers have voiced concern that this could mean even adults could not access some e-books.
The PEN America survey shows that most books being banned involve race, sexual content, and/or characters, themes or authors from marginalized groups, including LGBT+.
Beckham said she got involved in the fight after examining the Jackson/Hinds Library System’s database and finding a video with “a woman talking about lesbianism, and showing explicitly how to have sex with a woman!”
From there, she and others accessed databases for schools all over the state and compiled a list of 22 books they wanted checked out only with parental permission. “We won,” she said, because many of those books “are behind the librarian’s desk now.” Now, ten books can be checked out of school libraries only with parental permission.
She and other Moms for Liberty are not out to ban books or burn them, Beckham said. “We just want a voice in what our children learn in school.”
Last year, Beckham and her colleagues met in Ridgeland with Mayor Gene McGee and the city council. At issue were two books in the public library’s children’s section, “My Shadow Is Pink”, which is narrated by a boy, and “What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns”, as well as the adult section’s “The Queer Bible”, a book of essays by well-known figures like Elton John.
After the meeting, McGee announced he was withholding $110,000 in funding for the city’s public library, complaining about “homosexual materials” there. Months later, the library finally received the funding, and the three books are still on open shelves.
“We stood firm,” said Tonja Johnson, director of the Madison County Library System. “We have books for everybody; we serve everybody. You don’t have to check out a book if you don’t want to read it. Parents have a voice: They can come in with their child and tell them, ‘I don’t want you to take that book out.’”
Beckham applauded Mississippi lawmakers for seeking to restrict online material. She said, “We want laws in every state that give parents rights over what their children learn. We want transparency in education.”
In a video State Auditor Shad White posted on Twitter in January 2022, he lambasted critical race theory and a federal grant for public libraries’ spending on anti-racism books.
Anti-racism books “hurt kids just like sexually explicit material hurts kids,” he said. “These ideas are a cancer to our society. They pull us apart, not push us together and make it harder to have honest conversations about race. If we wanted to create a world or have our children create a world where racism no longer exists in a few years, maybe the adults should stop teaching the kids to be racist.”
Stanford University history professor James T. Campbell said critical race theory “has become a bogeyman in much the same fashion that communism did during the Cold War – this vague, dark thing that threatens the integrity of our culture.”
Campbell said there is a “deeply American strain about this politics of resentment, this belief that there are elite people who think they’re better than you are and who think they have a right to decide what your children should learn. What’s different now is there is an entire political party working to weaponize that resentment.”
For decades, Republicans looked to a strong defense, internationalism and fiscal responsibility to unite their party, Campbell said. “Having jettisoned a lot of their traditional positions, they’re now going all-in on the culture wars.”
There is nothing new about the fight for who gets to control what children read, Campbell said. “What is new is it has become the central plank for an entire political party.”
Angie Thomas will be among the best-selling authors scheduled to speak at the first Banned Books Festival in Mississippi on March 25 at Millsaps College in Jackson. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today is co-sponsoring the event with the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, the Millsaps Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center, the Mississippi Humanities Council, the Mississippi ACLU and Lemuria Books.
This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.