LeVar Burton Wants You to Read Banned Books

Culture
“What they’re trying to do offends me at the root of who I am and what I’m about.”

LeVar Burton Wants You to Read Banned Books

GQ; Photograph Courtesy of Stephanie Cozart Burton/ Courtesy of MoveOn/LeVar Burton

“When I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time,” LeVar Burton says, “I couldn’t imagine that situation in my reality. It was a shame, right? Wow. Those poor people in that misguided society. I live in that society now. That dystopian story has become my truth.”

It’s a timely message: According to the American Library Association, attempts to ban books hit unprecedented levels in 2022. Pen America reports that during the 2022-23 school year, the number of banned books increased by 33% compared to the previous year. Google “teacher fired for book,” and you’ll find accounts of educators losing their jobs over everything from a graphic-novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to the young-adult novel Dear Martin to I Need a New Butt—but more often than ever, it’s books that deal with (or even just allude to) gender identity, sexual orientation, and racism that end up on the chopping block.

Burton, a literacy icon and an executive producer of the 2023 documentary The Right to Read, has partnered with the civic-action nonprofit MoveOn.org on a limited-edition T-shirt designed by Alex Basovskiy, which features the former Reading Rainbow host’s likeness and the slogan “LeVar Burton Says Read Banned Books.”

For the past few years, MoveOn has been at the forefront of the opposition to mass book bans. It has mobilized over 175 artists, authors, musicians, directors, and other community leaders to support this cause. And its traveling BookMobile has brought free copies of banned books to thousands of Americans.

“We went through Illinois and North Carolina and Georgia,” MoveOn’s executive director Rahna Epting says, “and we saw families, kids, parents, librarians, schoolteachers, bookstore owners, and so many proud Americans come together and tell us, ‘We are so excited you’re here.’” Even in the face of an increasingly militant book-banning movement, Epting and Burton say they’re not giving up; they hope this merch collab will get people excited to fight back.

GQ: How did you both get into becoming advocates for literacy?

LeVar Burton: I’m just a kid who grew up with a mother who insisted that he read. It’s a core principle that has played out over the course of my life. I didn’t plan this shit, but I’m living it and I’m good with it. Somebody’s got to do it.

Rahna Epting: I grew up watching Reading Rainbow. It helped develop a love of reading. That show was on in our household, and with two working parents, that was super critical. And there’s a reason why millions of MoveOn members have rallied in support of our campaign to read banned books. Literacy is an antidote to ignorance.

Could you catch us up on where we currently are with the banned-books legislation, and some of the battles you all are fighting?

Epting: Over a couple of years ago, we started seeing a shocking emergence of banned books throughout the country. Most of them were ignited by singular individuals and have resulted in thousands of books being banned throughout this country. Florida, the leading state, banned over 500 books. Florida’s governor is a huge proponent of that. This is massively concerning to the majority of Americans who do not support book bans. An extreme minority effort is pushing these policies on the people of this country. Most people feel that they can make decisions for their own kids and their own families about what they read and what they don’t read, and they don’t need legislation taking away their ability to make choices for their own people.

Burton: I just want to point out that there’s a stunning similarity to women’s reproductive rights in this country. You feel me? This is part of a movement that we are battling for control over our minds and our bodies.

What was the inspiration for the shirt design? I love the vintage look and feel—it reminds me so much of one of the shirts I would get from the library after completing a summer reading challenge.

Epting: We wanted to make an icon shirt honoring the living literacy legend that we have here with us, and paying homage to the advocacy of literature. My generation grew up with Reading Rainbow. Everyone knows what that is, so we thought it would be a hit—and it made a perfect statement given the moment we are in. It’s not just about a T-shirt, it’s about the message.

What has history taught us about the act of banning books?

Burton: I think, in truth, the effect of book bans has been limited. What happens, though, is people who engage in this kind of censorship self-identify as folks you need to keep your eye on. And for me, that’s gold, because now I see you. I’d rather know who is trying to do harm to me and mine than not know. When you have legislators staging book-burning events, I’m happy to know that politician’s name and where he’s from, because what they’re trying to do offends me at the root of who I am and what I’m about.

Epting: We have seen this practice in all of human history. When leaders desire to consolidate power, one of the key levers they use is to control the narrative and the story and to control the idea of what is true and what is not true. So if you’re limiting the access that people have to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and different perspectives, you are replacing that with one story that allows you to be in power. That’s an intentional strategy to undermine American democracy, as fragile and imperfect as it is. We have seen that in places like Nazi Germany, but it’s not just the act of book banning that we’re talking about. It’s the act of control. We’re unfortunately seeing that in many countries right now, the reemergence of authoritarian ideology and tendencies.

Burton: Colonizers, as well. One of the first things in the enslavement of Black people—it was illegal for us to know how to read, to have the facility of literacy. It was a punishable offense. So the mentality is not new.

You hear a lot of politicians and parents who advocate banning books using the innocence of children as the basis of their arguments. What do you think is at the core of their fear?

Burton: It’s their own fear of becoming irrelevant. It’s their own fear of losing the world that they thought they had fashioned in their own image. We need to have the same sort of motivation to be activated in defense of that which we hold sacred and dear.

Epting: I’d just add that the people behind these bans, whether it’s abortion bans or book bans, are exploiting very natural human emotions—fear and protectiveness—and they’re exploiting our ignorance, as well. Part of what we’re seeing around this fear around the LGBTQ community, specifically trans people, is exploitation the ignorance of a large swath of Americans around what it means to be trans as a human being.

What are some books on the banned list that you urge people to read?

Burton: Dive into the ones around you. See if there’s something on that list that sparks you as particularly egregious or silly.

Epting: One of my favorite books as a kid and also the book banned for the silliest reason is A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. I think they banned it because it encourages disobedience, but it’s just a book full of poems that kids love and it makes kids laugh. They also claim that Satan is in it or something. But it’s not just about the books that shock you that are on this list—like, why would you ban Captain Underpants? It’s also about books that were so meaningful to so many of us in becoming mature people. There’s The Catcher in the Rye, there’s The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The 1619 Project, which I know some extremists had a field day with, which tells the history of the United States through the perspective of Black Americans.

Burton: [Jokingly] Through the perspective of Black people? You can’t have that.

What would the future look like if we keep banning books?

Epting: I would kind of push back on your question. I think a more important question is, What does it look like for us to push back and what does the world look like when we do stand up? And I think we’re seeing some of that right now. All of human history, the struggle for power is never-ending, and there’s no endpoint of win or lose. It’s something that we all have to participate in throughout our lives, and I think I know there’s more of us than them, and that this is not the end. These book bans will not last forever.

Your optimism is really refreshing. I’ve been so jaded by life.

Burton: We both grew up in a generation that had good reason to have hope. An optimistic outlook on the future. Unfortunately, my generation has left just a shitshow for your generation to clean up. And I get the sense of no hope coming from your generation. I understand it and it hurts my heart. It really does. But we have to find hope and inspiration wherever we can find it. We have to seek it out. And this is something we can do something about. We may feel helpless on an individual level, but we can do something about book bans at an individual level.

What can everyday people do to combat this?

Epting: Expressing your stance on literacy and reading banned books is super important. The shirt is one way that we wanted to offer people the ability to do that. Go to moveon.org/banned-bookmobile and you can follow a bookmobile around. Also, go to your local school board meetings regularly and be part of the dialogue. The holidays are coming up. Buy banned books for your friends and family. Buy them for your neighbors. Buy them for the people in your church.

Burton: And read them! Resist, resist, resist.

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