Cabral: On book bans and sanctuaries

Emilio Cabral, Columnist

When I was younger, Banned Books Week — which usually takes place at the end of September — was merely an excuse to browse the dozens of banned books my local library displayed. Every year, I would laugh at the irony of angry parents trying to ban Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” a novel about a society in which the government restricts the books published and the dissemination of information. “Fahrenheit 451” is one of the most banned and challenged books of the early 2000’s. 

But I’m older now. And as a writer who plans to one day publish books about queer love and queer joy — topics known for getting books banned in certain parts of the country — Banned Books Week has become a reminder that the literary canon is not a safe space for marginalized groups.

Every year, the American Library Association and its Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten most challenged books. In 2021, books banned and challenged for sexually explicit queer content took top three: Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” and George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” Also on the list was Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give,” which is constantly challenged and banned for supposedly promoting indoctrination and anti-police messaging.   

While these books deal with different topics, issues and communities, they all challenge the status quo by daring to treat the marginalized characters on the page with care. They provide safe spaces — sanctuaries — for readers who don’t always have them in their daily lives. It is one thing to know that your fears, concerns, wants and struggles are valid. It is another to see those realities represented in the media you consume.

Officials don’t ban books like “The Hate U Give” and “Gender Queer” to protect readers from harmful messaging and ideas, but to continue excluding marginalized people from the literary canon.

Ironically, while attempting to “protect” readers from the ideas and narratives they believe to be harmful, the parents, educators and elected officials leading the fight are ultimately harming the readers whose interests they claim to be representing. 

Every time “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is banned, a reader loses the chance to run their finger along the edge of the page, eyes open in wonder, as they dive into a narrative they’ve never encountered. They lose the chance to engage with new ideas and grow from the experience. And if they are a queer person of color, they lose the chance to discover a piece of writing that proves they are not alone — that they will never be alone. 

Fortunately, while the American Library Association has reported more attempts to ban and restrict books so far in 2022 than the entirety of 2021, more people are coming to the realization that these books must be protected.

In September, the Chicago Tribune reported that Chicago Public Library officials, along with city officials, created “book sanctuaries” across all 81 of the city’s library branches. In addition to publicly condemning the bans and voicing support for the authors affected by book bans, Chicago’s commitment to becoming a “book sanctuary” includes library programming that will increase local access to banned and challenged books.

When you’re not a member of a marginalized community, it’s easy to look at books and write them off as collections of disjointed ideas scribbled onto pieces of paper and wrapped in pretty packaging. It’s easy to decide what has value and what doesn’t — what is harmful and what is not. But books are not products on an assembly line that you can simply decide to discontinue. When you ban a book about marginalized people, you are taking away a sanctuary. And that is an act of violence.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.