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Black History Month at Hughes Hall Library


To mark Black History Month and Banned Books Week, Senior Library Assistant, Jess Hollerton, researched and arranged a thought-provoking display.

‘Books and all forms of writing have always been objects of terror to those who seek to suppress truth’ – Wole Soyinka

Each year, the American Library Association uses information from news stories and reports from library staff to produce a snapshot of book censorship in the United States. The picture is bleak: since 2020, the number of books challenged or banned across the United States in school districts, libraries, and prisons across the United States has increased exponentially.

As part of their data-gathering, the ALA compiles a list of the most challenged books across the country. On these lists, marginalised voices are represented disproportionately, with the books that see the greatest levels of censorship being those that address race, racism, inequality, or LGBTQ+ issues.

The ALA notes that the increase in challenges to books about marginalised people’s experiences is linked to conservative political and religious groups in the United States who seek to suppress content that brings race equality, prejudice and LGBTQ+ issues to a wider audience, especially an audience of children. They note evidence for organised lobbying groups ‘[u]sing social media and other channels [to] distribute book lists to their local chapters and individual adherents, who then utilize the lists to initiate a mass challenge that can empty the shelves of a library.’

The justification for restricting these books is often the need to protect children from explicit or graphic content. It is fair to say that many (although by no means all) of the challenged books do grapple with heavy topics, but that it is important to allow students to engage with these topics in a safe environment. George M. Johnson, author of the frequently banned All Boys Aren’t Blue, said in an interview with Time Magazine:

‘Books with heavy topics are not going to harm children. Children still have to exist in a world full of these heavy topics. And are going to be affected by them whether they read the book or not. Having a book though, gives them the tools, the language, the resources, and the education so that when they are having to deal with a heavy topic, they have a roadmap for how to handle it.’

In 2022, Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give, a young adult book about police brutality, similarly contended with the message that banning Black stories sends to children and young people who are already contending with these systems in their daily lives. On her Twitter, she wrote:

‘It’s emotionally trying to have my book(s) banned. But not because they’re my books, but because all I can think about is the message it sends to the Black kids who see themselves in my books. They deserve to have their stories told whether it makes you comfortable or not.’

Fundamentally, these book bans are not about protecting children from content that is too mature, but rather restricting access to the material that allows people in marginalised groups to feel seen and recognised, and that builds understanding and empathy between groups. Book bans focusing on marginalised people’s stories remove people of colour, queer people, disabled people from public life, and ensure that their stories will only ever be marginal.

A Selected Reading List

As marginalised groups are disproportionately the targets of book bans it is important to highlight those stories facing increasing attempts at censorship, particularly in the USA. Below is a selected reading list of challenged or banned works by Black authors:

Me and White Supremacy by Layla Sard

  • Where: School districts in Pennsylvania
  • When: 2021
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons Discussions of racism

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

  • Where: School districts in Tennessee
  • When: 2022
  • Status Banned pending investigation
  • Reasons: –

How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

  • Where: across the USA
  • When: 2021/22
  • Status: Banned/challenged
  • Reasons: Discussions of racism

 Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

  • Where: Florida, Texas
  • When: 2022
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons: LGBTQ+ themes, discussions of child abuse

Native Son by Richard Wright

  • Where: Schools in various states in the USA
  • When: 1978 onwards
  • Status: Challenged/banned
  • Reasons: Violence, sex, and profanity

Beloved by Toni Morrison

  • Where: Scools in various US states
  • When: 1995 onwards
  • Status: Challenged/banned
  • Reasons: Violence, sex, racism and profanity

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

  • Where: Various states in the USA
  • When: From publication in 1965
  • Status: Challenged/banned
  • Reasons: Discussions of racism, violence, ‘anti-white sentiments’

Kindred by Octavia Butler

  • Where: Across the USA especially in prisons
  • When: 2020
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons: Slavery, violence

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

  • Where: Many US states
  • When: 2020 onwards
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons: Depictions of racism and anti-police views

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

  • Where: Malaysia, Nigeria, Texas
  • When: 2012
  • Status: Banned/challenged
  • Reasons: Critical of colonialism, discussions of racism

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

  • Where: Florida and other US states
  • When: 2022
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons: Discussion of racism

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

  • Where: The USA
  • When 1977
  • Status: Banned
  • Reasons: LGBTQ+ themes

While the books below have not been banned, we think it’s important to highlight works by or about the Black queer community, as the intersections of race and sexuality often make their stories doubly invisible. Here are some of our recommendations by Black queer writers which we think are are worth reading:

  • Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
  • Feminist Theory by bell hooks
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
  • Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity  by C. Riley Snorton.

If you’re at Hughes Hall this month, come down to the Library to see Jess’s full display.

Further information

October marks Black History Month in the UK. The event was officially recognised by the US government in 1976, and first celebrated in the UK in 1987. Why is Black History Month necessary? People from African and Caribbean backgrounds have been a fundamental part of British history for centuries. However, campaigners believe their value and contribution to society is often overlooked, ignored or distorted. Black History Month gives everyone the opportunity to share, celebrate and understand the impact of black heritage and culture within the UK. More recently, greater attention has been paid to the importance of the Windrush generation and the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

Banned Books Week (1-7 October) is an annual event which aims to help draw attention to the importance of access to information for all: https://bannedbooksweek.org/.

Please see our website for for further information on equality and diversity at Cambridge and at College, including race equality issues, as well as inclusion and support information.