An Arkansas legislator is attempting to have the writings of Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States, banned from all public schools in the state. Republican State Representative Kim Hendren proposed the bill, HB 1834, last week to prevent Arkansas public schools from assigning any works from the legendary historian. This is not the first time a state has attempted to ban his books. Zinn, who died in 2010, was an inspiration for me personally when I was studying history. He wrote from the perspective of those who suffered from the slavery, genocide, racism and oppression of the imperialistic history of the United States. His writing is a counter to the revisionist rhetoric propagated by politicians and printed in public school textbooks throughout the nation’s public schools. He is a controversial figure among historians and academics, and the nature of his work spurs debate in any academic setting. At a time when our current presidential administration is running on the propaganda of “Make America Great Again” politicians in “red states” do not want students critically examining the factual history of our country.
Censorship of political oppression and crimes against humanity is nothing new. The U.S. has a long history of banning books that conflict with the social, religious and political ideas of those in power. The most banned books in U.S. history are: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Candide, Brave New World, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Anarchist's Handbook, The Satanic Verses, and the Harry Potter series. Besides literature, there have been many textbook publishers who have altered or deleted content in order to guarantee sales in a particular region.
The Supreme Court has attempted to rule on book banning cases that have violated the First Amendment over the years. School boards do have a right to keep books out of libraries and curriculum's, but it is harder for them to remove books once they have been placed in libraries and curriculum's. The ruling in the case of the Board of Education v. PICO, (1982) states that a school board’s rights do not override the First Amendment. Books can not be banned because of personal, political, or religious opinions, but, they can be banned for inappropriate content based on a student’s age. For example the banning of the book Lolita in elementary school libraries has been upheld.
This most recent attempt at legislative overreach is not the only modern attempt to suppress critical thinking and counter establishment narratives. School boards have shown to be susceptible to the complaints of parents, over an adherence to free thought and expression. In 2014 a Dallas school board banned seven books after parents complained. In 2017 a group of Alaska parents successfully petitioned to have four titles removed from their schools, and also in 2017 Oregon removed several books because of parental complaints. Censorship is not restricted to literature and textbooks, for example, in 2015 Arizona attempted to ban a Mexican Studies curriculum from its schools until an appeals court ruled that it was discrimination.
Not all parents, school boards and state governments do cave to local pressure to restrict access to controversial content. One Texas Mother successfully fought against the publication of a revisionist history textbook which insinuated slavery was a form of immigration. Organizations like Banned Books Week have brought awareness to parents and school boards on the danger of banning literature and changing the facts of history to suit the secular beliefs of people in their communities. The state of California in 2017 passed a law guaranteeing ethnic studies be taught in public schools.
Unfortunately this type of integrity does not seem to be currently demonstrated at the federal level. For instance, our new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has recently stated that she feels college professors indoctrinate students, and tell them what to think. This attack on the autonomy of university faculty is also apparent in the creation of a conservative website designed to place liberal leaning educators on a professor watchlist. Even more alarming is the fact that our current president may now have the ability to censor information available on the Internet. He certainly has shown the propensity to limit actual fact based information and substitute it with right wing narratives, which plays to the white supremacy beliefs of a large part of his political base. This censorship has also been seen most recently in the push back on the new release of the Disney film Beauty and the Beast. An Alabama Republican, among others, has been pushing to boycott the film because of the inclusion of a character who is gay. Coincidentally, Russia has also threatened to boycott the film for the same reason.
Censorship is an important means for religious, social and political groups to maintain power. Restricting access to opposing ideas is often steeped in patriotism and as a way to suppress dissident. People who are most likely to support the censorship of ideas predominantly live in rural communities in the South, are white Christians with limited education. These are the very same areas where people’s ideas of a “great America” are most threatened by Zinn’s perspectives on history. These areas celebrate the xenophobic populism that enables people to justify a Muslim ban, the recent increase in immigration raids, and the ever popular "build the wall" refrain of the conservative base. The banning of books is not limited to literature and history. The censorship of science allows for denial of climate change and the teaching of creationism instead of evolution in science classes.
Banning books and curriculum that tell the stories of those who have been historically oppressed promotes an unquestioning Nationalism that enables the government to scapegoat “enemies” and generate support for perpetual war. It is also why white conservatives have vehemently responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with the inherently racist response "all lives matter". If people have access to Zinn’s writings, and they are able to critically analyze U.S. history through the lens of slavery and segregation, then they would realize that in America Black lives have not been treated equal to whites. Black lives were treated as a commodity to be enslaved, tortured, raped, murdered and denied their god given rights to life liberty and happiness. It is so much easier to deny systemic racism when you can control the education of our younger generations. Those who have enjoyed the benefits of white supremacy are reluctant to allow their children to read a version of history not written from the viewpoint of the dominant culture.
If you allow students to think from the perspective of the oppressed, from the viewpoint of the heroes who were slaughtered for opposing imperialism and genocide, then they would have to look at themselves, and at American history differently. How could we “Make America Great Again”, when what we consider as great was the enslavement and murder of hundreds of millions of people? Americans love films where the “good guys” save the day, and we have a history of romanticizing our involvement in wars in order to make the world “safe for democracy”. That narrative can not long stand if children see that to many cultures, America is in fact the oppressor. When we are not allowed to learn from the past, we will continue to be the victim of manipulation and propaganda. People will make the same mistakes until they learn the perspectives of the victims of our history. In the year 2017 alternative facts and fake news are the center point of our political discourse. The banning of books is the fuel to that fire.