For more than a year following its release, author George Johnson’s book All Boys Aren’t Blue received widespread praise. The book, a memoir of Johnson’s life as a gay Black kid, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ and New York and Chicago public libraries’ “best of 2020” lists.
“There were no attacks until about eight weeks ago,” Johnson reported.
The move happened towards the start of the 2021 school year, when a concerted campaign against the teaching of specific racial and gender-related issues threw school board meetings into disarray. Christian right parents in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, and other states were outraged by Johnson’s book and others.
But it was in Florida where All Boys Aren’t Blue became the target of a more cunning ploy. There, a member of the Flagler County School Board filed a criminal complaint against the book, alleging it included pornography. The charge of pornography against writers of children’s and young adult literature is on the increase, with school board members, far-right paramilitary organizations, and politicians hurling it at novels they don’t like.
Johnson’s was not the first young adult novel to be accused of pornography.
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, received widespread critical acclaim in 1999 for her sympathetic depiction of a high schooler surviving the pain of sexual assault. Speak became an occasional conservative punching bag in the early 2010s, with pundits accusing it of carrying pornography in 2010 and 2014. The technique is now back—and more concerted than in previous years, according to Anderson.
“I noticed a real upswing about two, three weeks ago,” Anderson reports. “That was the first time that I got the sense that this is a coordinated effort around the country. That’s very disturbing. Before that, I think any censorship attempts that I’d heard about or been contacted about have been just a parent coming to the school board, or occasionally somebody with a larger agenda.”
This past June I published an article on Vozwire called, Florida parents explode over “marxist” textbooks, reminding me of the lessons I learned in the infamous Kanawha County textbook war.
As a reporter, I normally stay fairly detached, but this story immediately threw me back to my childhood, because in 1974, I was a student during the violent Kanawha County textbook wars in West Virginia.
The Kanawha County textbook war was a control struggle that led to the largest protests ever in the history of Kanawha County, West Virginia.
The motivation was a new set of textbooks for the entire county that threatened religious leaders and their parishioners ideals of what should be taught to students.
— Cory Doctorow SADDLE UP MENTALITY (@doctorow) May 13, 2017
For perspective, I lived beside a member of the Kanawha County school board, and my grandmother was a teacher in the district. We were not zealously religious, and I even less than that. Until one year before, I had been a Navy brat before my father decided to retire to his home town, which meant I was predominantly raised in a multicultural socialistic upbringing. Even though prejudice toward new ideals lingered throughout my privileged family, I was not afraid of the books.
However, my neighbor and best friend had a parent who was a religious protestor. I was banned from their household, and it was the beginning of the end of our friendship.
It all started when the Kanawha County School Board met on April 11, 1974, to evaluate new textbooks that had been suggested by a selection committee.
The language arts books in question featured a diverse range of authors including works by Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg, black rights advocate Eldridge Cleaver, and Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry. Other books included Animal Farm by George Orwell, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Under a time crunch, they approved the books without a lot of discussion and deliberation.
— Cranbrook Townsman (@CranTownsman) March 28, 2017
The board’s most conservative member, Alice Moore, began openly criticizing the books, claiming that they were anti-Christian and anti-American in nature.
She particularly pointed to a quote from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “All praise is due to Allah that I moved to Boston when I did,” the book said. “If I hadn’t, I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”
Twenty-seven ministers publicly denounced the books. Ten other ministers and the West Virginia Council of Churches announced support for the books. The difference being that the later were from the capital city of Charleston, and the former were from the rural outlying areas.
Despite the protest, the school board went through with furnishing the books to the county schools.
Ministers quickly mobilized anti-textbook groups and called for a boycott of schools, with 12,000 people signing petitions to keep the volumes out. The demonstrations were not confined to religious groups. Business leaders began to weigh in on the discussion as well. The battle lines were drawn.
A huge protest of 8,000 people ensued, calling themselves “Concerned Citizens.” The fury started to ramp up, as the community churches were buzzing, and the local news reflected the outrage and reported on it nightly.
— WV Humanities (@WVHumanities) September 7, 2016
A large number of parents kept their children from school in protest, and a small amount were kept out because of fear of what the protestors might do. I was of the later group, as my grandmother and neighbor were growingly concerned with the vitriol.
Religious protestors organized protests with picket lines throughout the city, one even shutting down the bus service.
In the rural counties, coal mining was king, and 3500 miners joined the protest, escalating the attention and anger.
The school board pulled the books for further review, fired the school board president, and that sparked 1200 students from the largest school in the county to protest over censorship. The entire county, it appeared, was in the streets.
Then an anti-textbook protestor was shot and wounded. They found bombs planted at an elementary school and a school board building. Another elementary school was dynamited, school buses were attacked with shotguns, and the homes of children who continued to attend school during the boycott were stoned.
A local minister prayed for God to kill the board members who had approved the books, which included my neighbor. She had armed guards surrounding her home.
The Ku Klux Klan sent at least three national leaders to Charleston in support of the anti-textbook cause. Protesters attacked a CBS reporter and his film crew, and cars were set on fire.
I pray one day the Kanawha County Textbook War will be taught in history classes across the country. What a critical moment in history that is so loudly absent from our collective memory.
— David Moore (@DMoore304) February 26, 2021
Moore, who began this protest, fled town.
The violence and national news coverage tempered the anger, and soon, everyone started staying at home. The school board approved the books, but Moore demanded that the statutes from here on out reflected the morals of church. She got her wish, and the result was that the most controversial books never entered schools in the rural areas of the county that had objected most stridently.
I do not remember the books. I remember the anger, the violence, and the fear. I remember feeling pained at the reproof that centered on race and culture, and I believe, without a doubt, that it helped me form my unyielding principles of social justice.
Quite the opposite effect than what Alice Moore intended.
With any hope, the alt-right will not win this new battle.