Author and Boston University professor Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Rep. Cori Bush, Democrat from Missouri’s 1st District, gathered at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia on Sept. 22 in honor of Banned Books Week to discuss book censorship.
At 7 p.m., college students, Anacostia residents, former and current educators, fans of Kendi and Bush and more gathered together in the popular DC restaurant. Each chair had a “special event menu” placed on it, and they faced the terrace where Kendi and Bush would have their conversation. Waiters of Busboys and Poets bustled around catering to the audience bringing them drinks and food.
Banned Books Week, launched in 1982, is an annual event usually held throughout the last week of September to bring together librarians, journalists, authors and more within the book community to celebrate the freedom to read and discuss the banning of books.
There has been an influx of book bannings and challenges since last year, where the bans originally were focused on content such as critical race theory and the history of slavery. There has now been a “heightened focus” on books about LGBTQ+ experiences and identities, according to a recent report by PEN America, a nonprofit organization focused on advocating the freedom of expression through the use of literature.
“If folks can keep us ignorant, if folks can keep you from understanding what happened before and how you get free, if people can keep you from knowing what freedom feels like and what it’s like – also if I don’t want you to know my ish the best way for me to cover it up is for me to keep you from being able to see it,” Bush said when asked why she thought this influx was happening.
According to PEN America, among the books that have been banned in multiple states, 41 percent address LGBTQ+ themes, 40 percent contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, and 21 percent directly speak to issues of race and racism.
PEN America explains how books such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir of author George M. Johnson’s experience as a Black queer man, has been named the second most banned book in the 2021-2022 school year, being banned in 29 school districts. This list includes books by author, Howard University alumna, and former professor Toni Morrison, with “The Bluest Eye,” being the fourth most banned book on the list.
“In many ways,” Kendi said, “this book banning is the latest effort for people to think that the existential threat is not racism, it’s those people who are talking about racism. That‘the existential threat is not sexism, it’s the people who are writing on sexism. The existential threat is not transphobia, it’s those trans kids. It’s just vicious, man.”
Bush continued on Kendi’s thought, “If we look at what they’re banning – books about LGBTQ+ issues from authors, books about racism and books that are considered sexually explicit – all of those in some way threaten the structure of white supremacy…” she said.
“To ban books, is to ban treasures,” Kendi said “But I also think, as you mentioned, that there’s just something beautiful about the power of seeing your own story in the mirror through a book and then also seeing the differences. There’s just something affirming, there’s something– there’s this connective tissue that allows human beings really to connect.”
When Kendi thinks of those who should be at the forefront of the movement towards combating the banning of books, he thinks of college students.
“I think that college students in particular, particularly HBCU students have historically been at the forefront of really fighting every major anti-racist battle in this countries history and I think that certainly Howard students and other students around this city can be organizing not only banned book clubs but they could be figuring out ways to organize with teachers, organize with parents, organize against school district leaders,” he said.
Bush agreed and added that students should connect with their alumni. “ Work with the alumni, organize with the alumni and then also because the alumni got a network, they got folks all over the place, and you got to think about what HBCUs hold. HBCUs turn out the most [Black] doctors, lawyers, judges, and so on, teachers, nurses, over and over. So use that network and also you can talk to us [Congress members],” she said.
Many in the audience had their own personal reasons for attending the event such as Delma Mbulaiteye, a research assistant in D.C.. She heard about the event through a group chat she has with peers at work.
“I’ve heard of Dr. Kendi and read some of his work,” Mbulaiteye said, “So I was very interested in hearing the discussion and just getting to hear more about the banned books because it’s close to my heart as an English major and avid reader.”
Devon Dietrich, a biomedical researcher in D.C., gave some insight on what she thinks may help combat the banning of books.
“I believe to combat the banning of books it really starts with awareness that this is even happening. I feel like a lot of people aren’t even educated that that is something that’s going on and that it’s a secret kind of underlying threat. As a lot of the things that have been happening in our current world, we don’t recognize how much we need something until it’s gone and unfortunately it’s often after it’s gone that we realize how much importance and value it has to our world,” she said.
The in person event was live streamed and posted on YouTube.
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee