September 2021: A blonde white woman takes the podium at a school board meeting for Lake Travis Independent School District, west of Austin, Texas. She claims that instead of speaking about a need for a second high school — the subject of the meeting — she had been “sidetracked” by something she read in a young adult novel that’s available in middle schools in the area. She was here to talk about that instead.
The parent, named Kara Bell, begins to read.
“A Mexican is a Mexican is a Mexican … Take her out back, we boys figured, then: hand on the titties; put it in her coin box; put it in her cornhole.” They were quotes, cherry-picked and context-free, from the book titled “Out of Darkness.”
Bell then performs an off-the-rails rant that quickly devolves into shouting about how she has never had anal sex — which she declared the term “cornhole” refers to, citing a Wikipedia page — and does not want her children to have it either.
It didn’t take long for Bell’s rant to go viral, with outlets such as TMZ and Jimmy Kimmel Live! roasting her for the bizarre tirade and exploring her history of similar spectacles. Even some conservative-leaning outlets, eager to chronicle the attacks on school boards that they had sought to cast as the culture war du jour, couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of Bell. “Texas mother interrupts school board meeting to discuss anal sex,” the New York Post’s headline read.
But beyond the laughs, a darker consequence emerged as a result of her stunt — “Out of Darkness,” a book written by Ashley Hope Perez that was critically acclaimed upon its release in 2015, was suddenly being yanked off the bookshelves of public schools in Texas.
The book, which uses the tragedy of the 1937 New London School explosion that killed some 295 students and school employees as a backdrop for a love story between a Mexican American girl and an African American boy, is a story centered on the struggles of marginalized people during a time when Texas businesses and public spaces either banned “colored people” or had specific hours for when they were let in.
The book makes no mention of anal sex, but Bell’s viral video kicked off a surge of vitriol aimed at Perez, with parents accusing her of being a “pedophile” who is “grooming young people,” Perez said.
Perez’s book, published six years ago, had not come under fire until this year, when parents like Bell began furiously campaigning against a wide array of books that were assigned in public schools, or simply available in their libraries. They painted Perez’s book as being “pornographic.” Other books were not sufficiently patriotic, parents claimed, or would make white children feel bad about themselves.
But Perez and other authors whose books became the subject of various minor firestorms noticed a thread running through the material that so inspired parents’ ire in 2021: they often highlighted the struggles of marginalized people, including themes centered on the experiences of people of color and those who identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“There’s kind of an attempt to create this impression that schools are indoctrination sites full of these pornographic texts — that’s a strategy,” Perez said. “It’s something that’s being used to churn indignation and also create power struggles.”
Part of what we saw in 2021 was inflamed by the pandemic: Bell herself previously made headlines for refusing to put on a mask while at a department store, and allegedly pushing a store employee. But the outrage directed at certain books this year also signals a broader shift in the stories we tell — and discomfort with it among white Americans — that began years ago and will likely continue for years to come as calls for more diverse representations in schools, workplaces and politics become increasingly prominent and, in some cases, see results.
“Part of the reason you didn’t see some of this 5 or 10 years ago is because you have to have the books and the supply and the interest for the challenge to occur,” said Richard Price, a political science professor at Weber State University in Utah who studies censorship in schools and libraries, with a special focus on those attempts aimed at queer-inclusive literature. “It was not hard for school libraries to ignore trans kids in their books a decade ago because there were hardly any books that included a trans kid.”
“These challenges are only necessary because in some ways our inclusion efforts are winning,” Price continued. “Now, these people who object have to try to purge the books because they exist for the first time.”
Perez has noted a striking shift from when she taught high schoolers English at Cesar E. Chavez High School, a predominantly non-white school in Houston, from 2004 to 2007.
During her time as a high school teacher, there weren’t enough books that centered the experiences of marginalized people, she said.
That problem has gotten somewhat better. But in 2021’s spate of calls for book bans by outraged parents, Perez sees a backlash, at times coordinated by conservative organizations such as “No Left Turn” and “Moms For Liberty.”
“Ultimately, all these parents who show up in school board meetings relentlessly making these wild claims about the books in the school create an atmosphere of intimidation,” Perez said. “And school boards that aren’t firmly rooted in values that center students are swayed by loud voices.”
In Texas alone, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has called for investigations into whether students have access to what he described as “pornographic books” in public schools, and state Rep. Matt Krause (R) has sent a list of around 850 books about race and sexuality to school districts asking for information about how many are available on their campuses.
In Spotsylvania County, Virginia, the school board not only directed staff to remove books, but two members proposed burning them. The president of the Iowa Senate also said last month that he was drafting legislation that would make it a felony for teachers and other school employees to give “obscene” material to students.
“America has always had an issue with allowing the other side of the narrative to be spoken about this country’s origin and about where this country is — past, present, as well as the future,” said George M. Johnson, whose memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue” details their hardships growing up as a Black queer boy in a series of personal essays. Johnson’s book has been banned by schools in at least eight states thus far.
“I think stories like mine and many others shine a light on the firsthand experience of what it actually feels like to live in a country that continues to deny the truth of people who are non-white, people who are non-heterosexual, primarily Black people, who have had to deal with the atrocities of this country since its very early establishment,” they continued.
Johnson pointed to the country’s reckoning with police brutality against Black people in the past two years, particularly protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer, as a factor in differentiating the current movement to ban books led by right-wingers from those that have come before.
Some calls for book bans in the past focused on books with white protagonists exhibiting supposedly antisocial behaviors, such as “Little Women” and “Catcher In the Rye,” or satanic panic-tinged attacks on fantasy novels. Whereas fiction books such as Harry Potter weren’t “built in truth,” Johnson observed that many books that are on conservatives’ hit list this year include stories that allow people into worlds “they didn’t know exist.”
People of color “have always been forced to read about the experiences of people who aren’t like us. And so this time around, the banning of specifically books by Black folks, and primarily by people of color, are touching on very real experiences,” Johnson said. “This ban looks different because there is still this notion of protecting white innocence …. And I think that is why we are seeing it so laser-focused on every book or every subject that eminently goes against that notion.”
Both Perez and Johnson don’t buy into the notion that the current demand to ban books is driven by a need to protect children from harmful content — for one thing, they point out, a lot of the books conservatives are trying to ban aren’t required reading in the first place. Instead, they see the push as an effort to restrict students, especially those who are white, from reading about harsh realities that have always existed.
Even though she wrote “Out of Darkness,” Perez said that, based on her past experience with teaching high school students, she wouldn’t necessarily assign the book to young adults due to difficult content within, such as sexual abuse, that would be hard to digest for some students. However, restricting students’ access to books that don’t mirror their parents’ experiences would be a “disservice” to children, Perez said.
“The root of what parents think they are doing is protecting students, but rather than protecting them from actual harm, they’re protecting them from imaginary harm,” Perez said. “Reading about the world in books creates safe spaces for kids to work through what exists in the world, what kinds of experiences young people do have in the world. And that’s quite important for people to be able to think through what these experiences mean.”
When parents are up in arms about supposedly wanting to “protect” children from difficult or disturbing experiences discussed in the books they’re trying to ban, there’s a “missing” word in that argument, Johnson said — they’re talking about the so-called protection of white children at the expense of non-white children who, up until recently, had not had access to books that mirror their own or their communities’ experiences.
“What exactly are you protecting them from? The world they live in?” Johnson asked. “My book is not introducing heavy topics to your child — the world they live in is introducing these topics everyday. My book and many of the other books, when they talk about topics of sexual assault, sexuality, gender — the youth are already experiencing those things.”
“They’re looking for a guide. They’re looking for a road map,” Johnson continued. “They’re looking for stories that mirror what their life experiences are, not stories that are introducing them to life experiences, but stories that are informing them about the life experience.”
Price, who researches these efforts, noted that the parents who are currently challenging books often point to so-called “sexually explicit” content in the works they’re trying to ban, but they argue that’s a “pretext” given the lack of context coming from parents who are seen in videos screaming at school board meetings, and the leverage these parents have when they use social media to publicize their crusade.
“So they’ll show up at a school board meeting with a paragraph or an image out of the book, out of context with no explanation, that has sexual terms or swearing. But of course, if they go into context, often that is a different story,” said Price.
Bell’s tirade is a perfect example: She cherry-picked a few sentences from one chapter in Perez’s book. Bell did not mention that the “cornhole” quote that she supposedly took offense to was in a chapter narrated by a group of white teenage boys, characterized as “the gang,” spewing their disgust — and sexualization — of the lone Mexican American girl at their school. The passage was a critique of America’s dark history and not, as Bell suggested, an endorsement.
A common thread between the demand to ban books that center on marginalized people as well as parents making fuss over fears of schools teaching so-called “critical race theory” (CRT) — an academic and legal concept that conservatives have appropriated and hijacked as one of its many faux culture wars recently — is that both scenarios pose a threat to the status quo, and therefore impose an us vs. them type of narrative.
“One of the things that comes up in my work around LGBTQ inclusion is the number of parents or community members who frame a book about a gay or trans kid as essentially a contagious device that will confuse their ‘normal’ children — and that’s usually the word that they use — confuse them about their sexuality or their gender,” Price said. “It’ll spread ‘gender confusion’ is one of these terms — and so that drives a lot of it. That fear comes up in a lot of different ways.”
Throughout 2021, we saw it time and again — parents disrupting school board meetings by yelling about their opposition to mask policies, vaccine mandates, LGBTQ rights, sex education, and teachings of race and American history (particularly, at various points in the year, so-called CRT and the New York Times’ “1619 Project”).
To Price, the “endorphine rush” that parents like Bell get for going viral by posing themselves as saviors from kids being “indoctrinated” suggests a broader fixation of using the government to essentially create a “proper society” with primarily white, heteronormative representation at the forefront.
It’s escalated to where there have been at least five confirmed examples of efforts to criminalize schools that defy calls to ban the books parents are trying to ban, according to Price’s research. One example is a school board member in Flagler County, Florida who filed a criminal report over the availability of Johnson’s book in three district school libraries, alleging that the book violates state obscenity laws.
Johnson’s concern isn’t so much about the potential backlash they could receive now that their work has become a target, but more so that students, especially those who are non-white or identify as queer, would become a target themselves and their safety would be endangered as a result of the book-banning frenzy.
“It’s very targeted,” Johnson said. “Queer students are already experiencing more violence, more homelessness at higher rates than heterosexual students, and now you’re going to try and put a target on their back if they take out a queer book? And make it known to people that the student got a queer book, someone who may not be publicly queer yet, someone who may be struggling with their identity. I think that’s the most dangerous part specifically.”
Perez similarly expects to receive backlash from conservatives on a regular basis going forward — she says she notices “spikes” in the vitriol that comes her way, upticks that she suspects happen whenever complaints about her book are posted in an online forum where parents are on a crusade to ban books like hers. But for Perez, she believes that she has a responsibility to readers and communities affected by the events she portrays in her book to tell those stories with integrity. Hoping not to be “squeezed by the Kara Bells” of the world going forward, Perez is more concerned about the writers who are just starting their careers and don’t have book contracts feeling paralyzed by the broader pushback against narratives of marginalized people.
“I do think its broader goal is to have a chilling effect on discourse, to make teachers unsure of what they can say, to make librarians hesitate before ordering books that they need to have in their library, to make authors anxious about just representing youth experiences as their story asks them to, and also for publishers to be to be leery of more boundary-pushing narratives,” Perez said. “So I do think the goal is a broader pushback on narratives that actually honor experiences outside of white, middle-class America. I hope not to be chilled, but it creates a hard environment for imagination and for writing.”
But even while embroiled in a manufactured controversy, authors like Johnson still find a silver lining in the past year’s strange turn of events. Johnson said that their critics are largely ignoring the lesson found in the biblical story of the “forbidden fruit” — which, in this case, is books like Johnson’s and others that have landed on book ban lists.
“So if you make my book the forbidden fruit, it’s only going to make more teens and more adults interested in reading it, which we’ve seen across the board in sales. And it also only will create more access points because the more books sell, the more places want to carry the book,” Johnson said. “So what you’re actually doing in removing it from one library, you are allowing big box, retail stores, airports and additional libraries to just carry more copies.”
“So thank you? It’s just interesting how they think this attack would ever work.”