Banning Books Keeps Students From Finding The Books That Speak To Their Identities And Experiences

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If you’re lucky, you come across a book that feels as if it was written with you in mind — or, like, you feel as if it was written for you. This book for me is Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation by John Phillip Santos. Well-known and widely-celebrated, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation is a book I’d never heard of until two years ago when my husband found a paperback copy of it in a thrift store in Marfa, Texas. This means that I’d lived 34 years of my life before finding the book that felt like it was written with me in mind — the book that contains far too many striking passages on far too many pages for me to dog-ear, and when I say striking, I mean the lines on the pages strike me physically, make me catch my breath, make me gasp, make my heart lurch and twinge.

Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation may not strike you the way it strikes me. It’s a memoir of sorts, about the history of Mexican-American family from San Antonio. It’s about being mestizo –mixed blood, specifically Spanish and indigenous –and what that identity means. Here’s just one of the too-many passages I have starred in the margins: “The bones of the ancestors were believed to be part of the Mexican soil beneath their feet, and the dust contained this sacred essence of the antepasados. A family carries within itself this hidden memory as old as dust. The Azteca priests told Sahagún that the dust was to be as revered as familia.”  I could keep quoting and quoting from my favorite starred passages, but I won’t.

Places Left Unfinished At The Time of Creation by John Phillip Santos, $11.65, Amazon

I won’t because, as I said, the passages within this book may not strike you the way it strikes me, but I wonder if they would strike some other people like me — mestizo, a people who have bloodlines that reach back into different places. I teach many people like this (like me) at a community college in Dallas. Mostly, I teach courses in freshman composition, but each spring I teach an upper-level elective course in Latino Literature, which is, in essence, a survey that covers material from conquest narratives to contemporary works from authors such as Junot Díaz, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Julia Alvarez. I learn from many of the students who take this course that this is their first exposure to works written by — and for — people like them, people who share similar histories, culture, and language. While I’m honored to share these works with them when they get to my classroom, I’m disappointed that my students weren’t exposed to any of this sooner. But then again, how much of it was I exposed to when I was a young person?

I learn from many of the students who take this course that this is their first exposure to works written by — and for — people like them, people who share similar histories, culture, and language.

Back in 2010, the Tucson United Independent School District banned Mexican-American studies from its high school curriculum. Many of the works that were removed from that curriculum are works that students read from in my class currently, including works by Luis Alberto Urrea and Rudolfo Anaya. The ban was challenged, and eventually the case went to court in early 2017. Lawyers for the state of Arizona argued that TUISD was legally justified in their move to remove the curriculum based on the rationale that the program "politicized students and made them resent white people." In late August of this year, a judge ruled that the state violated the constitutional rights of Mexican American students by eliminating a successful Mexican American studies program, saying officials “were motivated by racial animus” and were pushing “discriminatory ends in order to make political gains.”

I’m telling you about this case in Arizona to highlight the fact that young people of color aren’t often — or aren’t often enough — exposed to works of literature that speak to them and that this lack of exposure is sometimes deliberate on the part of policy — and curriculum-makers. Readers, writers, and publishers of young adult fiction speak often about the importance of representation and how we as an industry need to do better at finding and distributing stories that are inclusive and are reflective of different groups of people, but we (as writers, as readers, as citizens) also need to turn an eye to the gatekeepers in the form of curriculum-makers on the state and local level. Many works of literature that currently do exist aren’t included in the curriculum of school districts that serve students of color. In the case of Tuscon, the books were there, and students were reading and connecting with them before those books were put in lockers and literally locked up. That’s why I believe the August ruling is encouraging: it says that curriculum matters and that it’s crucial for students to have course materials that speak to them.

...we (as writers, as readers, as citizens) also need to turn an eye to the gatekeepers in the form of curriculum-makers on the state and local level.

I do believe in the universality of themes because I am an English major and an English teacher, and that’s just what I believe. I think that many people can read Macbeth or see it performed and understand the dangers of “vaulting” ambition. But, I also think that certain books will strike a person in a very profound, gut level way that may not be shared. More books that explore more identities and experiences need to be written, but the ones already out there need to be more accessible. Also — and I’m saying this as if we live in my version of a perfect world — librarians and teachers need to be less hobbled by standardized curriculum. We also, as educators, need to not just share books we love, but books we think will speak to and make a difference in a young person’s life. Sometimes there is a distinction between what we gravitate toward and what a young person needs; sometimes I myself could do better at making this distinction.

But, I also think that certain books will strike a person in a very profound, gut level way that may not be shared. More books that explore more identities and experiences need to be written, but the ones already out there need to be more accessible.

I guess what I’m trying to say with all this here is that I hope that other people don’t have to wait 34 years to find the book that feels like it was written for them, or strikes them in the heart because that book exists but is tucked away on a shelf at Goodwill or in the depths of the library stacks, or is overlooked, or worse, locked up by small, frightened people.

Samantha Mabry is the author of A Fierce and Subtle Poison and All the Wind in the World, which was long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.