Witch-Hunting for Something to Complain About
On my local book ban
When I was in sixth grade, I found a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe on the shelf of my middle school library. I don’t remember what exactly drew me to it, but I must have been curious about that era of American history because I checked the book out and read it cover to cover. And I don’t remember much of the book’s content because that was back in 1991. But I do remember how reading it made me feel, how shocked I was that people could treat others like that, and how I understood the importance of never allowing such atrocities to happen again. I experienced a range of emotions in its pages. The book, as the hard ones especially tend to do, cracked me open, expanded my empathy, and clued me into humanity’s capability for cruelty. It made me think in ways that I may not have if I hadn’t been skimming those library shelves and happened upon something that intrigued me.
Fast forward thirty years and I am a mother of three children who attend public schools. And I’ve been thinking about Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book that was particularly divisive and widely banned—because of a book banning effort happening in our school district.
To provide a little background, I live in Beaufort County, South Carolina, a wealthy and booming coastal county on the southern tip of the state. And South Carolina is not only deep south, it is also deep red. The republicans are everywhere and have been in charge around here for as far back as is relevant to any conversation about it today. Most of the people who live in my community and interact with me in my life here align with the right. People who live in blue or purple areas of the country may not fully understand what that means; I know I didn’t know what life in a deep red state meant until I moved here. And that’s probably a tangent I don’t feel like exploring here. The point is, conservative values and policies prevail in my neck of the woods. And coincidentally, or perhaps by design, South Carolina has always ranked at the bottom for education. According to a recent analysis and ranking, we’re forty-fourth in the country.
I became a mom in 2005, less than two years after moving here. And I can remember, even back then, having conversations with my friends from college who lived in other parts of the world, many of whom are educators, about the state’s public schools. I always said I felt lucky to be in an area with so much wealth; I live in the same county as Hilton Head Island. Our schools have been, in recent history, among the top in the state. Obviously “lucky” is a complicated way to feel in this case. There are a number of benefits to starting a family in South Carolina. The sun shines every day. The beaches are beautiful, and there are flowers blooming all year round. But the school system’s reputation isn’t one of them. The schools here have teacher shortages, students with mediocre test scores, and tight budgets. Outside of Beaufort County, in our starkly poorer neighboring counties, all the moms I know homeschool their kids. And the folks behind this book banning effort, in this citizen’s point of view, seems bent on choking this struggling system even further.
Of course, because I’m always behind and tired and over-extended, I haven’t been at the meetings where all of this has been happening. But I’ve been keeping up with it in the newspaper, and the education reporter at the Island Packet has done an awesome job. This article in particular delves into the movement’s background. Basically, back when everyone was fighting about covid mandates, the “parents’ rights” folks coagulated at community meetings and on social media. The man who first brought up the issue of banning books in a school board meeting in August of 2022 told the papers that he was influenced by what groups like Moms for Liberty were accomplishing in other areas to draw outrage toward and sew mistrust in the public school system. (The Moms for Liberty candidates have, in ours and neighboring counties, won board of education seats on parents’ rights platforms. These positions are supposed to be non-partisan, but the conservative group is apparently using them to gain power and influence.) Following this organization and other conservative loudmouths led these parents to concerns about critical race theory, which prompted them to look at the books in our school library. Using a list obtained from a site associated with Moms for Liberty, they started reading. This was how this small group of parents found that some books have “dirty” parts. And that’s when these two or three parents started making noise and trying to ruin it for everyone else.
The original complainant, a man who moved to the area in 2021, stood up during a school board meeting and read a graphic passage from a book about teenagers being trafficked. Then they submitted their list and ninety-seven books were pulled from the school shelves. I won’t go into all the details here because you can read about it in the paper, but the short version is that a board of expert reviewers has been assembled for a process that will take a year and cost $8,500. Meanwhile, state lawmakers are actively trying to divert public education funding to private schools and attempting to make schools less safe by passing a permit less carry legislation that will put more guns into our communities. I was at least relieved to see that the book reviewers seem to be people who know what they’re doing. So far, two of the twenty or so they’ve covered so far have been pulled from shelves—It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover and Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.
One of the books on the list to be reviewed is The Kite Runner by Kahled Hosseini, which my eldest son read in his ninth grade AP English class a few years ago. My kids, like most, are not bookish, though they do seem to tolerate all my questions about what they’re reading in class. I remember being impressed that the teacher had chosen it. And I remember feeling a little scared that my baby would read such difficult material. But never once did I think he shouldn’t read it. Unlike the guy who started this whole book ban effort, I’ve had kids in the Beaufort County school system since 2010. And if people like him don’t ruin it, I’ll have kids in these schools for another eight years. Not once during all that time have my parental rights been violated. I have always been welcome at the school, and they have allowed for my voice to be heard. All the teachers and administrators have always been available for my concerns. I’ve never not known what my kids are learning in class every day. They have never been taught critical race theory, and no one has ever talked to them about sex. And I’ve never heard otherwise from any of the other parents I’ve encountered all these years in the school community. The picture these folks are painting of our education environment are inaccurate, and they are making the school’s job harder.
Valuing education means more than encouraging kids to read or making them go to school every day. It also means trusting expertise and the people who have dedicated their lives to education. It means letting the people who went to school to learn how to pick books for kids do their jobs. Believe me, if I could get my kids to read any of the books on the list, I’d be thrilled. That even includes Colleen Hoover. And although we’d all like to think our kids would never do this or don’t know about that, I know from experience that there is no end to the trouble they can find. My children have shocked me countless times, and whatever is in those books these people are so bent out of shape about, I promise you the kids can handle it.
Because here’s the thing: kids see racism happening; kids get raped; kids fall into prostitution; and kids have sex. No matter how uncomfortable it makes me as a mom, these are the facts. And it’s not really about me. It’s about the kids looking around in the school library looking for something intriguing to read and the importance of them being able to find it.
This morning when I was dropping my eldest son off at work, I asked him what he thought about the book banning effort and the fact that The Kite Runner, a book that changed his world view, was on the list. And I’ll leave off with his thoughts, with which I totally agree: “That’s stupid.”