Bookstores, libraries face efforts to hide books on Black, LGBTQ people

When Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville announced June 9 that someone is plucking books from their displays and hiding them in the store, they didn’t specify what sort of books are being taken.

I assumed the stashed volumes were books about queer youth and trans acceptance and such, the segment of human behavior currently singled out for special harassment by those who feel entitled to establish limits on human nature that maximize their own comfort.

But that isn’t the kind of book being targeted.

“Any book with a cover showing a person of color on it gets covered up,” explained Ginny Wehrli-Hemmeter, director of events and marketing at Anderson’s, one of the largest independent bookstores in the Chicago area.

About 50 books have been found tucked behind other books. Police have been notified; a man, caught in the act, was confronted.

Nor was my next thought — that this must be a freakish anomaly — correct. Can people really be offended by the sight of a children’s book about Jackie Robinson? In 2022? This has to be the handiwork of some lone-wolf, west-suburban hater indulging in repairable acts of racism, I figured.

Sadly, it is not.

A sign posted in Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville.

Anderson’s Bookshop points out that it has long been an advocate of diversity, as illustrated by this store sign posted on their Facebook page, and its management is grateful for the outpouring of community support following their announcement about the Juneteenth display being hidden.

While other large independent bookstores in and around Chicago—the Book Stall in Winnetka, Powell’s in Hyde Park—do not report similar vigilante mischief, it is endemic at public libraries around the country.

“The books overwhelmingly being targeted deal with the lives and experiences of LGBTQ persons,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the office for intellectual freedom of the Chicago-based American Library Association.

But it is by no means limited to them. The lives of Black persons also are a particular focus, she added, “under the false idea that books about Black people are some kind of ‘critical race theory.’ There is a lot of rhetoric that’s being used to vilify these materials. It’s truly tragic.”

Caldwell-Stone said rather than being the acts of isolated vigilantes, these book purges are being organized in plain view. She pointed to the “Hide the Pride,” effort by CatholicVote, encouraging people to check out books involving gender issues en masse from public libraries to avoid the risk that a child might see one.

“They have a website, a social media presence,” Caldwell-Stone said. “It’s stunning to see they have this idea that public libraries are just for them, and they should take actions to sanitize the library from materials that reflect the lives of gay, queer or transgendered people. It’s a real effort to silence the voices of communities that are finally finding a place on the public stage in our society so that we can understand the experiences of others.”

CatholicVote explains online what it wants parents to do.

“Go to the children’s section and take all ‘Pride Month’ books off the display shelves,” it instructs parents, telling them to check out the books, then “place the Pride books on a shelf out of reach of children.”

Their website shares before-and-after photos of library displays stripped clean by parents who, unsatisfied with merely raising their own children, have appointed themselves as the moral guardians of everybody else’s children, too, no matter which faith or philosophy those parents imagine themselves free to practice.

The CatholicVote “Hide the Pride” web site contains photos of book displays stripped clean by parents.

The CatholicVote “Hide the Pride” web site contains photos of book displays stripped clean by parents.

Brian Burch, president of Madison-based CatholicVote, estimates maybe 50 or 100 libraries have had their books removed by members.

“We’ve urged parents to exercise responsibility in their community to remove what we believe to be inappropriate books from these displays, so kids’ innocence is protected,” he said. “These books provoke conversations best reserved for families, at the time and place and manner of the parents’ choosing — not libraries.”

Burch said some of these books include depictions of sexual acts, and libraries should store them where only adults can have access.

He didn’t specify exactly what kind of harm such books are supposed to cause, beyond noting that their presence in libraries undercuts parents’ rights to tightly control what their children learn about life. Prompting me to ask: Should children be taught that gay and trans people exist?

“I think that’s a question each individual parent should decide for themselves,” Burch said. “We shouldn’t have taxpayer-funded institutions teaching kids about that.”

Since any group can put “Catholic” in its name, and with the intention of not letting CatholicVote be the unchallenged spokesman for a great faith, I reached out to the Archdiocese of Chicago for their view on this. They did not disappoint.

“Not everything that calls itself ‘Catholic’ is in fact part of our church,” said Paula Waters chief communications officer for the archdiocese. “CatholicVote is not a Catholic organization, It’s not a part of the church, or sanctioned by the church or has any relationship to the church. It has no status. It’s a PAC that appears to be well-funded.”

Before we end, let’s review the dynamics of bullying. First, the bullies must posit a harm to themselves. THEY are the victims—or their children, anyway. Thus their aggressive acts are justified. In doing so, reality is inverted: books reassuring transgender youth, or celebrating Black history, are not opening the tent flap of acceptance to groups that haters have abused and marginalized for years. No, they are recruitment efforts designed to draw the haters’ children away from what some parents must consider very lightly held orientations, or make them feel bad, because their forebears were the sort of people who built America’s woeful racial past for 400 years.

Like voting fraud, the damage done to children by encountering such books is both strongly feared and utterly notional. Leading to a completely upside down view, where the mighty Catholic Church — as conceived by a certain slice of the faithful — is invoked as defense against the prospect of a kindergartener in a tutu checking out a book that suggests they too might be a child of God.

Haters succeed to the degree that they get people to consider the merits of a meritless case. I’m sure some Black readers don’t want to be lumped in with LGBTQ individuals — different situations entirely! They should realize this isn’t about them, not really. It’s about the bullies, insecure people who define themselves by who they’re not, and so repress anyone they can get away with repressing. The specific victim hardly matters, and changes like fashion. The key is to choose a group plentiful enough to be cast as a threat but scarce enough to be unable to offer a strong defense. Race, gender, religion, it’s the exact same impulse — to go after the thing different from yourself, get it out of sight, since their existence might suggest a way other than your own.

But it isn’t moral. It isn’t defensible. It isn’t good parenting. It’s the value system of the Inquisition. Jews might find themselves being burned in their synagogues, again, if the law didn’t frown on that.

Let’s end with the American Library Association’s Deborah Caldwell-Stone delivering the bad news to those who somehow missed the memo.

“Public libraries are community institutions, intended to serve everyone,” she said. “We are a diverse, pluralistic society. We should hold our public institutions accountable for that diversity and ensure that everyone is included at the library. Everyone should find books that reflect their lives, their needs. Everyone is a taxpayer who supports the library, which should anticipate and celebrate a diversity of views, a diversity of identities in the community. To understand that simply because somebody else’s story is on the shelf doesn’t take away from you.”

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