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St. Louis-area students want to read challenged books to understand race in America

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Books that have been banned or challenged in the St. Louis area are pictured at Left Bank Books in a photo illustration. Students across the region have sought to read the books to learn more about race in America.

Mya Walker reads two or three books a month. She enjoys literature that depicts unfamiliar experiences, particularly by authors of color or those who are LGBTQ.

The Francis Howell North High School senior said the works offer lessons in life that teachers or parents may not know how to discuss with their students or children.

“The next couple books that I plan on reading are 'The Bluest Eye' by Toni Morrison and some of the books that are being challenged,” Walker said. “I just really enjoy reading things that are new and different to me; it’s really, really important.”

According to the American Library Association, the novel by Morrison, a Nobel Prize laureate, is one of the 10 most challenged books of 2021. Some people want the book removed from school library shelves because they say it contains sexually explicit content and describes child sexual abuse.

Walker and other students may have to carry on reading books outside of the required lesson plans, if school boards continue to face demands to take books that discuss racism, gender, sexuality and history from school libraries.

Some students say white parents and Republican lawmakers are trying to keep them from learning by banning books, especially by Black authors.

Mya Walker, a senior at Francis Howell North High School, on Tuesday, April 19, 2022, outside of her home.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mya Walker, a senior at Francis Howell North High School, said students should read what they want to read and adults should be willing to talk to them about difficult subjects. “They don’t want stories that are different than their own to be heard, and I want to hear from those stories,” she said about those who are attempting to get books banned in schools.

Walker, who has a Black dad and a white mom, said she wants to read books by Black authors, because she is not learning enough about Black history. To help her gain a deeper understanding about race in America, she registered in an dual enrollment program at St. Charles Community College.

“I've always been the kind of student who’s like: ‘Oh, I want to know more about that. I'm going to go home and look it up or I'm going to read a book about it.’” Walker, 17, said. “I was tired of having to do that outside of class, rather than having that information provided for me.”

A group of students from University City High School also was determined to learn more about Black history. After studying the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project initiative, some high school students asked district officials in 2019 to provide more materials from the African American perspective by Black writers. Administrators agreed and encouraged them to produce their own projects to explore how race has played a role in the nation’s history.

University City High School junior Mouhamed Ly and his classmates participated in those projects, which led them to continue reading books that discuss racism and history, like “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. It was the second most challenged book in 2020.

Mouhamad Ly, a junior at University City High School, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, at the school library in University City, Mo. Ly volunteered to be a student facilitator in a community’s reading and discussion of the The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Book.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mouhamad Ly, a junior at University City High School, volunteered to be a student facilitator in a community’s reading and discussion of "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Book."

Students need to keep reading books that discuss hard history with different perspectives to accurately reflect what has occurred over centuries, Ly said.

The 16-year-old said when teachers do not include materials on Black people, it makes him feel excluded in the classroom. He said some white people want to prevent students from learning the truth.

“Black history is American history, and it cannot be ignored,” Ly said. “It just needs to be addressed, and all Black students, white students and all students need to be able to learn about Black history if they want to.”

Some white parents say teaching about race and history alienates white students and makes them feel as if they are oppressors. But another University City High School junior, Michael Simmons, said Black history is meant to teach where African Americans came from, the hardships they endured and how they contributed to the foundation of the country.

“Even though those things may be hard to deal with, it’s the truth,” Simmons, 17, said. “It happened, and there’s nothing we can do about it to change what happened, but accept it and do whatever we can to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Michael Simmons, a junior at University City High School, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, at the school library in University City, Mo. Simmons is one of the students who participated in the community’s reading of the The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Book.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Simmons, a junior at University City High School, is one of the students who participated in the community’s reading of "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story Book."

A recent report by PEN America, a nonprofit that fights for freedom of expression, found that schools across the country banned 1,586 books in the past nine months. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to ban library books or university reading materials in 2021, which resulted in 1,597 book challenges or removal of reading materials. Association officials said it was the highest number of attempted book bans since they began gathering the list 20 years ago.

The Missouri Library Association does not keep track of statewide book challenges, but association officials said many Missouri parents mainly oppose certain books because they include obscenities or references to the sex lives of queer people.

Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” is photographed in this photo illustration on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” is included in a photo illustration at Left Bank Books.

Librarians and educators are the connection between readers and books, and it is the association's responsibility to fight for books to stay on library shelves, association President Cindy Thompson said in February. The group rejects claims that removing books will hide children from the ideas inside the books when students have access to them digitally.

Kirkwood High School senior Ajah Green has found materials and ideas about gender and sexuality that some parents are trying to shield from their children on social applications such as TikTok.

“You're going to learn more on social media or if you don't learn it somewhere, you're going to look it up on the internet,” Green said. “So, I don't think that they should ban or I don’t think that parents should choose what they want their children to read because they're going to get exposed to it eventually.”

The 18-year-old said one of her favorite books is “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. It discusses police violence toward African Americans and its effects. The book, published in 2017, has made the American Library Association’s 10 most challenged books list every year, except for 2019.

Green, who is Black, thinks the book should remain in school libraries because it teaches Black children how to be prepared to deal with police encounters and about discrimination.

“It shows what happens out in the real world today and what has been going on between the police and Black people in general,” Green, an avid reader, said. “It gives a real view to people who don’t really know — like other races — what we go through and what we are being accused of daily.”

Green wants to continue reading banned books by Black authors. She said without them she would miss out on learning about various Black experiences.

“Taking the books off shelves will affect the learning of students because they wouldn’t be able to know their history, because a lot Black authors write about history and students wouldn’t be able to learn their culture and they would be clueless in that subject.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.