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Book Bans, Racism, and Black Children's Mental Health

There is a need for nourishing spaces to protect Black children's mental health.

Key points

  • Positive racial youth identity development has been linked to improved mental health outcomes.
  • Positive racial youth identity development can be supported by diverse and inclusive literature in schools.
  • Black leaders must be supported in their communities to help advance equity in Black children's mental health.

Part two of a two-part series on racism and Black children’s mental health.

My previous post discussed the negative impact of racism on Black children’s mental health and new efforts to support Black students in schools. Below, we delve deeper into the impact that book bans, particularly of Black authors, have on students and how these actions take us further away from what needs to be done to support Black children’s mental health.

Some countries ban books because of controversial content, hate speech, or calls to action inciting hate crimes or beliefs such as anti-semitism. Nationally, the U.S. only prohibits books of child pornography. Pertinent to our topic of racism and Black children’s mental health is the recent ban of the book Stamped, which discusses structural violence against Black Americans and ongoing racism in our country. (The Round Rock Black Parents Association, based in its community in Texas, has effectively fought local book bans, reminding us that we are stronger together.)

I recently spoke to Akeem Marsh, a child psychiatrist in New York and editor of the book Not Just Bad Kids, who noted the “controlling” and colonizing feeling that comes with book bans. He narrated his own memories of discovering empowering Black authors in high school: “The way the stories were told, they were told by someone inside the culture, there was a lot of nuance that would not be present if it was written by others outside that culture. People were humanized and given complexity that only someone from that culture would be aware.”

Marsh and I agreed on the importance of providing difficult information and concepts to children in a developmentally appropriate manner that allows them the space to ask questions and process feelings. Marsh further reminds us of the power of education, noting, "If we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it.” Book bans do the opposite: They take these learning opportunities away from children, educators, and parents.

Beyond bans: Quietly breaking down an unstable educational system

During my psychiatry training in Philadelphia, I learned of the painful reality that many schools serving Black and brown kids were suddenly closed. There is a current wave of school closures in Oakland, California and other communities but it is not getting the national attention it deserves.

Education is a tool that has been identified by global leaders for centuries. From W.E.B. Dubois to Barack Obama to Malala Yousafzai, community organizers have long understood the importance of educating their communities as a way to empower them to pursue the valuable goal of self-actualization. Closing down schools, banning books, and silencing the voices of scholars and community leaders is not the solution we need. These efforts only deviate further resources away from our capacity to address the root causes of the core issue: racism.

As activists such as Ibram X. Kendi and Bryan Stevenson have noted many times before, we cannot address our painful history without knowing about it. Tiernee Pitts, a high school senior in Texas and president of her school's Black Student Union, demonstrates this understanding when she states that U.S. history “is not just one narrative.” She longs to see her identity described in the books she is assigned in school, echoing the same longing and seeking the same inspiration Marsh described when he began reading books by Black authors.

Empowering communities

For all of us doing this work, Tiernee reminds us that we are on the right track. We are advocating for things that matter, things that kids desire. She described the wish and need to delve deeper into the complexity of why reading from diverse authors matters. She wants to see teachers explain why they are assigning certain books. She wants to hear the complexity that comes with choosing assigned books at school. Kids are not only capable but are innately inspired by complexity, just like adults.

All parents, educators, and community leaders advocating for anti-racist efforts to create a better world for Black children must remember that even though this work is challenging, it is not hopeless. Natosa Daniels, a leader of the Round Rock Black Parents Association notes that her work "is not always a fight...there have been pockets of people in the district who have helped us." And Marsh reminds us that despite the challenges that come with social justice advocacy, we must not forget that "we also have power and we have to use that power."

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