Book banning is nothing new. (In fact, books have been banned in the United States since the 17th century, and censorship is nearly as old as the art of writing itself). You likely learned about the Nazi book burnings that took place in the 1930s, a campaign intended to wipe out ideologies opposed to Nazism. And perhaps you remember controversies surrounding classic books and authors, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to the works of Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, and George Orwell. (Did you know: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were the most challenged of the entire 21st century?)
While governments around the world have their own forms of censorship, the list of banned books in America is a long one. And it only continues to grow.
Banned Books vs. Challenged Books
According to the American Library Association (ALA)—a nonprofit organization that promotes libraries, library education, and intellectual freedom—a banned book is one that has been removed from the shelves of a library or school. There are also “challenged” books. These are books that people, usually parents, want to remove, but the ban itself hasn’t been made official.
Why ban or challenge a book in the first place? Censorship is often fueled by religious or political beliefs (and has become highly politicized in recent years). Parents may also express a desire to protect children from “offensive” language, sexually explicit content, or information that’s not age appropriate.
Removing these resources, however, also removes an essential means for readers to expand their worldview, have meaningful conversations, and maybe even see themselves reflected on the page for the first time.
Banned Books Today
The ALA documented an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges last fall. The majority of challenged books focus on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. (Some examples of many: George (Melissa’s Story) by genderqueer author Alex Gino, whose book has topped the ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged books list for its LGBTQ+ content; Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds; All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely; John Green’s Looking for Alaska; the list goes on.)
You may have heard about controversy surrounding Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a 1980 graphic novel about the Holocaust that was recently banned by a Tennessee school board for “violence, nudity (with mouse caricatures), and profanity.” (Whoopi Goldberg also made headlines for being suspended from “The View,” claiming the Holocaust was “not about race” during a conversation about Spiegelman’s work). Some, including the author himself, blame the Maus ban on a desire to whitewash history.
It’s true that districts across the United States ban books that deal with the history of oppression. Many of these books—along with an extensive list of “classic” literature—offer perspectives and narratives we need to access, talk about, and learn from. Events like Banned Books Week highlight noteworthy books that have been targeted so we can celebrate our freedom to read, access ideas, and seek information.
Although Banned Books Week isn’t until September, we wanted to highlight our top banned books, specially by Black authors in America. Books about the Black experience are often targeted, and have been for decades. These books are some of many we’d recommend from Black authors past and present.
Banned Books by Black Authors You Should Be Reading
Banning books by Black authors has increased amidst debates over critical race theory, an academic framework that positions racism as a systemic, not a societal, issue. Some argue that critical race theory leads to less tolerance and more division, and therefore want to remove “problematic” portrayals of African American people and people of color.
Some of these banned books are contemporary, while others have been challenged for decades. Believe it or not, much-beloved Maya Angelou is the most banned author in the United States, and her works continue to be challenged.
We believe in the power of representation—Black writers should be able to tell their stories. Here are seven of our favorite Black-authored books that have been challenged or banned, starting with the most recently published. Again, while these are important to highlight during Black History Month, we’d encourage you to read banned books—and books from marginalized people, including African American writers, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color—throughout the year.
The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, 2021
Launched in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America, the 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine to reframe our country’s history and recognize the legacy of slavery as an integral—and central—part of our national narrative. The project has also shed light on the persistence of anti-Black racism in today’s society.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine, and creator of the landmark 1619 Project. She expands on the 1619 project in her book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. A total of 18 essays explore the contributions of Black Americans throughout history, along with the profound legacy of slavery and its widespead impact on contemporary society. (If you’re interested in uncovering our country’s “true” history, we’d also recommend How the Word Is Passed by BookClub author Clint Smith, featured in our Critical Conversations book club.)
“We must do what is just: We must finally live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded.” -Nikole Hannah-Jones
Why the book was challenged/banned: Most recently, bills introduced by state legislators in Arkansas, Iowa, and Mississippi argue that the book misrepresents American history. Two bills call the text “racially divisive” and “revisionist,” while the third claims it “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.”
Why you should read it: While illuminating important moments of oppression and resistance, The 1619 Project clearly speaks to numerous facets of present-day American life. Hannah-Jones’ work will help you better understand how our nation was founded and built, as well as how systems of race continue to shape everything from our music and politics to religion, citizenship, religion, and democracy.
Class Act by Jerry Craft, 2020
New York Times bestselling author Jerry Craft released Class Act as a companion book to New Kid—the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal, among others. His book tells the story of eighth grader Drew Ellis, one of the few kids of color at a prestigious private school.
Drew’s grandmother always reminded him, “You have to work twice as hard to be just as good.” But Drew has to wonder: What if he works ten times as hard and still doesn’t enjoy the same opportunities his more privileged peers take for granted? As he struggles to relate to his friends, Drew wonders if he and his friends can learn to accept each other—and, most importantly, if he can accept himself.
Why the book was challenged/banned: Both of Craft’s books have been challenged; Class Act was pulled from school library shelves in Texas under the pretense that it teaches critical race theory, may create feelings of “discomfort,” and could lead to more racial division. (Some states are passing bills that bar schools from teaching students about racism, while parents and school boards double down on removing books about marginalized communities.)
Why you should read it: Craft’s graphic novel is poignant, heartfelt, and often laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a delight to read, whether you’re a student, a parent, or someone who enjoys an eye-opening story paired with colorful, expressive visuals. New Kid and Class Act (we recommend reading both, as some characters carry over) also shed light on social issues, everyday microaggressions, and ways that white adults can harm children of color—even with the best of intentions.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, 2020
Through a collection of provocative essays, New York Times bestselling author Mikki Kendall offers an in-depth look at the feminist movement and how it often fails to support marginalized people. We were lucky enough to feature an exclusive interview with Kendall on BookClub about Hood Feminism, her personal experiences, and the book’s most powerful—and timely—themes.
Kendall examines how the feminist movement was ultimately designed to benefit privileged women. Her essays pose essential questions: How should we really talk about feminism, and what issues should we focus on? (The “real” feminist issues, Kendall argues, include everything from inadequate wages and food insecurity to unsafe living conditions and poor healthcare—issues that women and their children contend with on a daily basis.)
“Sometimes being a good ally is about opening the door for someone instead of insisting that your voice is the only one that matters.” -Mikki Kendall
Why it was challenged/banned: Kendall’s book was banned as part of a broader effort to censor discussions about race and sexuality. It was also featured in a list of about 850 books that Texas state representative Matt Krause claimed “made students feel discomfort” due to their content about race and sexuality, urging school libraries to report whether they had any of the books.
Why you should read it: Hood Feminism will challenge how you think and talk about feminism and women in need. It will help you be a better ally and develop what’s lacking most in mainstream feminism: empathy. Visit Kendall’s book club to see her interview, explore discussion guide prompts, watch her candid answers to thought-provoking questions, and chat with fellow readers.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, 2017
Angie Thomas’ debut novel was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and written as a response to the police shooting of Oscar Grant. The story follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who moves between starkly different worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the elite suburban prep school she attends.
After witnessing the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend (who was unarmed) at the hands of a police officer, Starr becomes entangled in a national news story. Once a grand jury decides not to indict the police officer for the shooting, a riot ensues. Starr has to decide what to do—and how her words and actions could impact her community.
"I can't change where I come from or what I've been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me?" -Angie Thomas
Why the book was challenged/banned: The Hate U Give has been challenged and banned for supposedly promoting an anti-police message. Its racial themes and “vulgar” language have caused the book to be one of the most challenged books of 2017, 2018, and 2020, according to the ALA.
Why you should read it: Thomas’ characters are well-rounded and compelling. Her story is also a critical one, as many Black people—and Black teenagers—are having to contend with police shootings and struggle to make sense of what’s happening. It will help expand your understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and the difficulties Black Americans face, especially those who engage in code-switching, which takes its own psychological toll.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, 1970
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye explores the effects of racism on a young Black girl’s self-image. Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove lives in post-Depression Ohio. As people in her neighborhood and school remind her that she’s an “ugly” girl, Pecola struggles with the toxic self-hatred that racism can breed.
More than anything else, she wishes for blue eyes—something she learns to associate with goodness, beauty, and a means of escaping oppression.
“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love a free man is never safe.” -Toni Morrison
Why the book was challenged/banned: This book was recently removed from shelves in Missouri and Florida school districts. Again, the debate over critical race theory fueled more recent bans, as Morrison’s works explore America’s darker moments in history. Her books make a regular appearance in the ALA’s top 10 most challenged books, including Beloved and Song of Solomon.
On attempts to ban books (specifically Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn), Morrison wrote that book banning is a "purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children."
Why you should read it: Of course, Morrison’s books are must-reads for many reasons. The Bluest Eye offers a transparent, honest look at how prejudice—and what we consider “beautiful” or “valuable”—can affect our society’s most vulnerable people. It also covers topics that, while difficult to discuss, are important for today’s readers. (Theater fans: You can now see it on the stage.)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, 1969
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical telling about Angelou’s early life. The celebrated book begins when three-year-old Maya and her older brother are sent to live with their grandmother in a small Southern town. The two endure feelings of abandonment, along with prejudice and racism.
Against the backdrop of racial tensions in the South, Maya experiences childhood trauma, violence, and upheaval. The book follows her evolution into a passionate, strong-willed African American woman and civil rights activist.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” -Maya Angelou
Why the book was challenged/banned: As we mentioned earlier in this piece, Maya Angelou is, in fact, the most banned author in the U.S. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been frequently challenged and banned, ostensibly for vulgarity and sexually explicit material. (Her autobiography explores violence, racism, sexuality, childhood rape, and teen pregnancy.)
Why you should read it: Where to begin? Angelou’s work has been widely influential, creating new avenues for the American memoir and illuminating issues that are still relevant, urgent, and worthy of discussion. Overall, it’s a memorable masterpiece and a modern American classic.
Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin, 1953
This semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story is Baldwin’s first major work and an American classic. It tells the story of John Grimes, a teenager in 1930s Harlem, and focuses on the role of the Pentecostal Church in the lives of African Americans—both as a source of repression and inspiration.
Baldwin explores John’s complicated family life, as well as the backstories of his aunt, father, and mother, who migrated to New York from the South. John’s struggles and experiences mirror many of the author’s, including an impoverished upbringing in Harlem, a vitriolic father, and a religious conversion.
“It’s a long way,” John said slowly, “ain’t it? It’s a hard way. It’s uphill all the way.” -James Baldwin
Why the book was challenged/banned: In 1988, this book was challenged by parents of ninth graders for being “rife with profanity and explicit sex.” It was also challenged in a Hudson Falls, NY school in 1994 for sexual content, language, violence, references to rape, and degrading treatment of women. Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Another Country, and A Blues for Mister Charlie have also been banned.
Why you should read it: Baldwin’s work is lyrical, raw, and powerful. Considered one of the greatest African American novels of the 20th century, Go Tell It on the Mountain has shaped how Americans see themselves and consider their own spiritual, sexual, and moral struggles. (For a closer perspective, check out this virtual interview with novelist Ayana Mathis for T Magazine's book club.)
Long Live Banned Books
Like we said, these books are only some of many banned and/or challenged books worth reading. The bottom line? Books have the power to open our minds, spark meaningful conversations, and ultimately unite us. We hope you’ll join us in reading these powerful stories from Black authors. If you have any recommendations, feel free to share with us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.