Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing counters surge in book bans with library project, new book club

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted Aug 23, 2023

During the 12-month period between June 2021 and July 2022, 1,648 books were banned. Photo: Kennedy Library/Creative Commons License

[Episcopal News Service] To counter the growing effort to ban books and censor what students can learn about race, gender and sexual identity, The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing is offering ways to support books and authors affected by these efforts and to offer a space for Episcopalians to engage in learning and discussion.

Beginning two years ago states increasingly began banning books and attempting to legislate what can be taught or said in classrooms and shelved in school libraries. During the 12-month period between June 2021 and July 2022, 1,648 books were banned, with Texas and Florida leading the way.

These efforts are driven by representatives of the dominant culture’s desire to control the “soul of America,” both past and present, Catherine Meeks, the founding executive director of The Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, told Episcopal News Service. Such fear and insecurity, the antiracism educator said, has “white supremacist energy” to it.

Those seeking to ban books in schools and libraries across the country, Meeks added, are disturbed by the progress of persons of color and other marginalized groups in society.

“I think it’s an absolute atrocity for someone to be using ‘banned’ and ‘books’ in the same sentence in the 21st century,” Meeks said. The underlying belief is they think “Black people have gotten out of their place and LGBTQ people are acting like they think they have a right to be whoever they want to be.”

In response, in June the Absalom Jones Center launched the “Brave Pages: Read. Resist. Repeat” campaign to raise funds for a banned-book library, and to create an online book club aimed at building an inclusive, engaging community focused on literature that promotes racial healing and wellness to counter the nationwide surge of book bans.

The campaign has raised $1,500 for the library, and several hundred people have joined the book club. The club’s inaugural pick was “Belonging: A Daughter’s Search for Identity Through Loss and Love,” the memoir of journalist Michelle Miller, born to a Black father and light-skinned Latina mother. In July, members read “Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America,” an essay collection that digs into blackness, history and racial tension in the U.S. by Daniel Black, author of the novel “Don’t Cry for Me,” about a Black father making amends with his gay son.

There’s power in education, and that belief led the center to launch the initiatives, Chelsi Glascoe, the center’s assistant executive director, told ENS.

“If people try to narrate education in a way that promotes white supremacy, or to try to erase the injustices that have been done toward people of color, then our response is going to be: We’re going to speak up about it and build awareness,” she said.

Glascoe, who’s also a campus missioner for the Atlanta University Center Episcopal Ministry, which serves historically Black colleges and universities, noted the lie being taught to kids in Florida about slavery having its benefits to those who were enslaved.

“If our children do not have the truth in education, then we have a problem that must have a response,” she said.

“We’re empowering those who care about racial justice work,” said Glascoe, “So that they can now be the grios, the ones who tell the story of our narrative.” “Grio” is short for “griot,” meaning a storyteller of West African descent.

In addition to sending out book suggestions, the book club also shares reflection questions, supplemental videos and movie suggestions from the featured author. The club had an active Facebook group when it started, but it has since been restricted by the social network. Glascoe believes their use of words like “racism,” “social justice” and even “African American pride” led to the censorship.

The Absalom Jones Center was born out of the Diocese of Atlanta’s commitment to Becoming Beloved Community and The Episcopal Church’s long-term commitment to racial healing. It opened in October 2017 as a place for those in the church and beyond to engage in dialogue that leads to real and lasting change.

In February, Black Episcopal leaders, including Meeks, expressed their concern about Florida’s rejection of an Advanced Placement African American Studies course, which was later revised but with notable Black scholars excluded.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, censors targeted a total of 2,571 unique titles in 2022. This is the highest number of book challenges, or when a book was sought to be banned or censored, since it started compiling censorship data two decades ago. The majority of titles challenged were those written by or about members of historically underrepresented communities.

“They’re saying that this person’s history is illegitimate,” said Emily J.M. Knox, one of the country’s leading experts on book bans and a lifelong Episcopalian. “The current book challenges are really against respecting the human dignity of every person,” Knox said. She urged Episcopalians to reject such censorship by those with extremist views, emphasizing that social justice cannot exist without intellectual freedom.

Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association, in a statement to ENS said that defending access to diverse views is a collective responsibility. “Communities of faith have a vital role to play in protecting our collective wellbeing by giving voice to those who would be silenced,” Drabinski said.

Those who support The Absalom Jones Center are a cross section of people, including many white Episcopalians, according to Meeks. She hopes to have more persons of color supporting the center’s activities.

“I know good and well that there are many white people in this country that are very distressed about all of this,” she said. “I want to see the world going down this path. So, I’m happy to continue to hold on to hope that we’ll all stand up to the plate and say, not on our watch. You don’t get to do this and have us just acquiesce to it.”

— Caleb Galaraga is a freelance religion reporter.