SXSW Banned Book Library highlights Texas’ role as book ban leader

At SXSW, the idea is, historically, to celebrate and showcase art. Whether or not it hits the mark is a story for another day. But this year there was one exhibit that shone a spotlight on the art that is being taken from people: the books that are being banned across America.

The Banned Book Library exhibit popped up this year at SXSW, making waves in highlighting how expansive the book bans are in America — and particularly in Texas.

It’s all part of a new project by cosmetics brands Lush in partnership with the African American Policy Forum and the Zinn Education Project. The exhibit features facts about book bannings (more than 2,500 in the U.S. and 9% are biography, autobiography, or memoir), a map showing the states most affected (yes, Texas “wins” again), and displays physical books commonly found in these book bans.

A year ago, an arm of Lush’s Ethics Department called Advocacy and Activism instituted a nationwide installation calling attention to teaching more accurate history in America. The Banned Book Library grew from those installations, and SXSW is its first exhibition. Jessica Nelson, a senior analyst and project manager in Lush’s Ethics Department, says that the exhibition might pop up in other cities.

“We’re very interested in if this or a version of this can be displayed in other areas that have a high degree of banning activity or action or advocacy,” she says.

More than 60 commonly banned titles are showcased at the library.

More than 60 commonly banned titles are showcased at the library.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Nelson says SXSW was an obvious choice because of its history of innovation and independent creativity, the kind that is being pushed out of libraries and classrooms nationwide. And while this is a national issue, with more than 30 states instituting book bans, that SXSW happens here is important.

“Texas is quote, unquote, leading the charge in this space,” she says. “As many people in Texas that we could call attention to, to reach out to, and show them ways that they can fight these book bans, they can push back on those that are being challenged, and that this is a bigger issue than you may think, is only going to help the movement.”

The exhibit, which features more than 60 banned books, utilizes data from PEN America, which last year found that Texas ranked first among states in total number of bans. There are 801 book bans in Texas in 22 districts. The next largest number is in Florida, with 566 bans in 21 districts.

The reaction to the installation has been positive, Nelson says, but that people have been “horrified at the scope of it.” She says that international visitors are particularly shocked, though Americans from outside Texas are also surprised at some of the content being banned.

“They’re seeing the books on the shelf and going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I read that!” she says. “‘I can’t believe that bell hooks is ‘bad.’ Are you kidding me? Toni Morrison, she’s a Nobel Prize winner!'”

The exhibit features stark figures about book bans in America.

The exhibit features stark figures about book bans in America.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Most of the books being banned, Nelson says, are those that relate either to race, gender issues, or some intersection of the two. Howard Zinn’s books, biographies of Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass are on the list, as is Tango Makes Three, which Nelson says is the most challenged children’s book in America, about the true story of a pair of bonded male penguins in a New York zoo.

The books, Nelson says, will be donated to local educators who are under threat about what they can or cannot use in their classrooms.

“One of the things that’s most upsetting to me,” she says, “is the pure attack on history and authentic stories.”

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