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The Dishonest “Book Banning” Debate 

Parallel to the book banning debate around CRT/ LGBT books is one about the supposed censorship of classic literature.  We’re to believe that conservatives are gunning for beloved novels such as Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  That might have been true about 70 years ago. Nowadays, however, those classics are banned for an entirely different reason– a reason that has nothing to do with the sensibilities of conservatives.  

Most “Banned” Books

The most targeted books in school curriculums and libraries, according to USA Today, are led by Gender Queer and Lawn Boy, which have LGBT themes:

Most challenged books, 2021 (USA Today)

While modern librarians might be familiar with such titles, they are not exactly known and beloved by the general public.  In that sense, there are two “book banning” debates: One is about young adult books that are controversial due to their explicit content (graphic images of sexual acts, etc.).  Some of the books eliciting those concerns are on the list above.  

Those who advocate for the controversial LGBT/CRT oriented books are shoehorning Huck Finn in with the “banned books” phenomenon so as to generate more sympathy with the public– by evoking novels which we actually do love.  

Novels like Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are not being banned by conservatives.

The debate is framed deceptively in the public sphere.  For example, this image is displayed on Barnes and Nobles’ website which invites you to browse “banned books”: 

This list presents books much more popular with the public than the list from USA Today.  Many adults will fondly remember reading Animal Farm or To Kill a Mockingbird.  The implication is that backwards conservatives are going after the best that literature has to offer. 

American Library Association

The American Library Association (ALA) is also guilty of perpetuating banned book hype.  The ALA will point to books that were banned 50 years ago, in a more puritanical society, to foment indignation for the current book banning debates.  The fact is, our society is no longer remotely puritanical.  That’s not what the debate is about anymore.

With that said, an editor for an ALA publication had a good insight on book censorship.  Speaking with PBS, Robert P. Doyle noted:

"People often think it only comes from the religious right, but you can point to many examples from the left. For instance, sometimes there are efforts to remove books that some consider racist. I think one of the best examples of that is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. First banned in 1885 as “trash and suitable only for the slums,” challenges to this title changed in the late 1950s because parents objected to racial slurs in the book, and you still have those challenges today."

What Doyle means here is that African American parents object to Huck Finn for being “racist,” and for that reason they are a part of efforts to remove the book. 

Animal Farm and Catcher in the Rye 

Published in 1951, Catcher in the Rye was controversial for its time.  It was challenged from the ‘50s through the ‘90s.  Nowadays, you would be lucky to get a teenager interested in even reading it; so far is it from being lurid or sensational by our standards. Catcher in the Rye is quaint by comparison to the books we see on the USA Today “most banned list,” books which include depictions of graphic sex scenes and the like.  Historically, Catcher was banned frequently, due to saying “damn” over 200 times, and other rebellious messages.  However, it is not really banned at all at present–the last incident I could find was from 14 years ago, and that was an isolated case.  

As for Animal Farm, it is bizarre that it should be on Barnes and Nobles supposedly “banned books” list. Maybe in communist countries it was banned due to its satire of communism .  The implication that conservatives are banning Animal Farm in 2023 is pretty rich. Conservatives can’t shut up about George Orwell (“This is just like 1984”).  It’s disingenuous to shoehorn Animal Farm into the banned books propaganda.  It’s about engaging the public sympathy with an appeal to books that the public actually…likes. 

To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn

To Kill a Mockingbird has a history of being banned for its explicit content–themes of rape, for example.  But this was back in the ‘60s when we had a much more conservative society.  Nowadays, To Kill a Mockingbird is not banned for its risque themes, but rather for its use of the n-word.  

There aren’t any voices on the right complaining about To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather, many who take personal umbrage (understably) by the novel’s use of the n-word are African Americans themselves.  When a school district is making politically sensitive decisions vis-a-vis the curriculum, one imagines the specter of a racism accusation must loom large.  The combination of offended African American parents and school officials terrified of being called racist can fully explain the instances of classic books being banned.  

In one incident from 2017 a district in Mississippi temporarily removed To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum, but then rescinded the decision after some bad press.  Liberals were incensed at the Biloxi district’s stated reason: that the book made people uncomfortable.  Leftists evoke the specter of white privilege, and imply this is why classic novels are being banned.  God forbid white kids feel “uncomfortable,” they suggest mockingly.  But it isn’t really white kids’ feelings at stake here.  

When the vice-president of the school board said “There were complaints about it,” one should not necessarily infer that the complaints were from White parents.  Kenny Holloway continued: 

“There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.  It’s still in our library. But they’re going to use another book in the eighth-grade course.”

Decades ago, To Kill a Mockingbird might have offended Southerners insofar as it portrays racial injustice, and portrays them as the perpetrators of the injustice.  Blacks in the novel, such as Tom, are the victims.  James LaRue, director of the American Library Association explains

“The reasons for it have changed over the years. The truth of it is, what people don’t like is the very unflattering portrayal of racial conflict in America, and I think that’s the thing that makes people uncomfortable.”

Now we’ve come full circle, because one would be hard-pressed to find white people complaining about To Kill a Mockingbird’s or Huck Finn’s portrayal of racial injustice.  We’re pretty much all on board with not falsely accusing a black man of rape.   

To the extent that Twain was criticizing the institution of slavery with Huck Finn; again, I dare say whites would endorse that message too.  Rather, the only aspect of the book that remains controversial is the n-word.  According to Public School Review, Biloxi schools are 34 percent African American.  That seems like a relevant detail in this controversy that isn’t mentioned in the news reports.    

Novels like Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird are not being banned by conservatives. After all, this is classic literature. Conservatives like these novels. Why are Democrat politicians and activists complaining about so-called book bannings?   Do they want books with the n-word in the classroom? Of course not.  Instead, they’re just muddying the waters so that uniformed constituents will assume it’s conservatives and backwards whites who are the ones complaining about Huck Finn.   

I have taught To Kill a Mockingbird and had complaints from the parents of an African American boy.  They wanted their son to read a different book, based on their perception that the novel was racist.  Did I judge the parents?  Not for a minute.  The book has the n-word 48 times, after all.  Yet it did give me some perspective on why the book was contentious to read in a high school class.  

Huck Finn was controversial from the beginning.  Published in 1885, Huck Finn was considered by the general public to be crass–but not because of racism.  The notion of a narrator that was semi-literate was the cause for concern.  Starting in the ‘50s, it was groups such as the NAACP who protested the book, considering it racist and deploring the use of the n-word.  This is the nature of the censorship against Huck Finn from that time till the present.  Again, it isn’t conservatives protesting Huck Finn.  

In 2019, Duluth, MN removed To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum “to protect the dignity of our students” and “not require them to read books that marginalize them.”  One can make a logical inference from there about whose dignity is being protected (whether or not that is the correct action).  

In 2022, Burbank CA, To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and a few other books were removed from required reading lists.  Additionally, the N-Word was banned from all classes.  Clearly, then, the removal of the classic novels was based on their use of the n-word.  

There are about a dozen other instances of Huck Finn being banned from classrooms across the US, compiled by Mashall Libraries.  In every instance, it is clear that the n-word, used 212 times in the novel, was the reason for the bans.  


Many of the “banned books” which Barnes and Noble likes to display are not even banned.  Those that are banned are typically banned because they are deemed racist, which is a small detail left out of the “banned book” hype. 

The classics, Bustle tells us, are “unbearably white.”  To the extent that there is an assault on the classics, it is from the left, who resent reading books by white males (their least favorite group of people).  Also, we can say that classic texts are being expunged due to the complaints of those who feel most targeted by the books’ use of the n-word.  In effect, classic novels are being targeted from different factions for various reasons; but surely they are under fire.   

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