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Banned Books: This Is About Us

On September 20th, PEN America NC Piedmont and the NC Writers’ Network will host a conversation at Queeny’s in downtown Durham as part of Banned Book Week. The social hour will feature children’s book author Alicia D. Williams, journalist Lewis Raven Wallace, high school librarian Kristel Behrend, and William Johnson from PEN America.   

The Durham event is one of thirteen PEN America Banned Book Week programs happening around the country as books are being challenged in public schools and libraries at unprecedented numbers.  

Most of challenged books center Black, queer, and trans voices.

A few days ago, I sat down to write this post when my mother called.  She is a dedicated Southern Baptist who lives in a rural conservative town in the Florida Panhandle. My mother volunteers at the local Urban Ministry. 

She told me about a father  — let’s call him Dwayne — who came in last week for guidance.

His 12-year-old daughter recently revealed that she wanted to be addressed by different pronouns.

 “I am your son now,” he said.

Dwayne is struggling.  

“This is outside of anything I know,” he told my mother. “I’m trying to figure this out but these things are beyond what I can wrap my head around it. But, I do know I love her. I mean him. Lord help me.” 

Dwayne’s vulnerability broke my heart.  He loves God, country, and his child. He doesn’t know any queer or trans kids. Dwayne doesn’t even know what LGBTQIA+ means.  He doesn’t need his personal experience politicized. Dwayne is dealing with deep pain in isolation while trying to understand how to be supportive to his son. 

“Thank God there are books for that,” I told my mother.  I started mentally preparing a list.  Dwayne isn’t flush with financial resources to order books online, though, and I wondered if the public library would even carry these titles considering the new Don’t Say Gay or Trans Bill in Florida. 

I grew up artsy-weird in this town, so I know how it feels to be different. I had a school librarian who let me read the books she kept on her secret shelf. Books have saved me more than once.

However, I don’t know how it feels to grow up queer in a place when even the public library may not be able to carry books that could save a life. 

The current movement to ban books keeps people like Dwayne and his child from finding a language to make sense of their realities. Everyday people and the children they love are navigating issues of identity and belonging. Banning books attempts to erase these lived experiences. Fewer books creates thought deserts in areas where resources are already limited.  

The move to censorship is dangerous on many levels: a recently elected Tennessee district attorney suggested jailing librarians wasn’t “off the table.”

These are the issues we will talk about on September 20th — the personal consequences of censorship and what you can do in your own community to make a difference. 

To be honest, it makes me mad that we even have to talk about it at all. Forty years after the American Library Association established Banned Book Week, we face unprecedented, organized efforts to take books off school and library shelves and to police conversations educators can have with their students.  

I hope you, as a writer, will join this conversation. If you are in the Durham area, please drop by on September 20.

Deonna Kelli Sayed wrote and posted this blog entry.