The Prince George’s County Memorial Library System has partnered with the Obama Foundation for its annual “Rock Banned” campaign, which seeks to shine a spotlight on books that have been banned or censored.
In a minute-long video, supporters of banned books dance to “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John in various libraries throughout Prince George’s County.
After the dance montage of children and adults holding banned titles, including To Kill A Mockingbird and The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets, former President Barack Obama appears.
“PG County Libraries rock banned books!” the 44th president says while holding The Color Purple aloft. “Do you?”
The Rock Banned collaboration between the library system and the Obama Foundation is meant to show readers that books are essential to understanding the human experience.
“In the library, we have [books that] like mirrors reflect your own experience, but we also have items that act as windows into someone else’s,” says Megan Sutherland, interim Chief Operating Officer for Public Services at PG’s County Libraries told Metro Weekly. “That’s how we grow as a community, how we understand each other, and how we help to understand a lot of the issues of our world.”
“The free, robust exchange of ideas has always been at the heart of American democracy,” the former President said in an open letter to the librarians of America earlier last week. “The First Amendment of our Constitution states that freedom begins with our capacity to share and access ideas – even, and maybe especially, the ones we disagree with.”
The county’s Rock Banned campaign began in September 2022 as an attempt to turn a national event — Banned Books Week — into a series of events dedicated to preserving banned books and celebrating the freedom to read that can be held throughout the year.
The campaign features monthly discussions about a banned title focusing on books with LGBTQ and/or people of color, book displays for banned books, and a keynote address. Author and journalist Leonard Pitts Jr. delivered last year’s address.
The events are not without controversy, even in Maryland, which is considered a relatively liberal state. Two Prince George’s County libraries in New Carrollton and Greenbelt were vandalized with anti-LGBTQ hate speech during Pride month last year. Additionally, an event intended to celebrate black queer literature was disrupted, according to Sutherland.
In 2022, 1,477 book titles had been banned in some form for their discussion of “controversial topics,” especially titles highlighting experiences from LGBTQ, black, and indigenous communities or penned by LGBTQ, black, or indigenous writers.
PEN America, a non-profit organization that works to defend freedom of speech and expression in the United States has kept an index of books banned during the 2022-2023 school year. These book bans have been documented in 37 states, with Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina leading the list.
The index also found that of the 1,477 banned books, 30% discussed race or featured characters of color, and 26% examined LGBTQ topics and themes. This is a 28% jump in banned books from the same time last year, according to PEN America.
“For communities and groups that are marginalized and [being] targeted, being able to see personal experience reflected back in the literature or media that you’re consuming is extraordinarily powerful,” Sutherland said.
“If you’re able to read a book and either learn about a true life figure whose experiences are similar to your own or see that in a fictional character, there is a lot of comfort to know that you aren’t there by yourself.”
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