When I was a senior in high school, the best teacher I had ever met was fired for assigning a book of poems that one parent found inappropriate.
I don’t remember what the book was, but I remember that it was optional. I remember that the term “pornography” was used in the campaign to get rid of her. I remember knowing that poetry wasn’t porn, and that the distinction should matter, but didn't. I remember hearing that the books that made her class unique, the books several times more diverse in terms of race and class and gender than any other assignments I had seen, had been under fire for a long time. Above all, I remember what her classroom represented: one of very few spaces in the school district where queer kids could gather and know they’d be understood. When she was forced out, that space disappeared, and with it her persistent advocacy for diverse books and the kids who needed to see themselves represented in those pages.
I never got over it. Call this my advocacy origin story. I have joined the American Booksellers Association as the Advocacy Associate Manager to fight for the right to read, because I want to help build a world in which everyone can see themselves represented in literature and the spaces where it can be found.
What happened then was a premonition of things to come all across the United States. Especially since 2020, an extremist political minority has begun pumping money into school board elections to take books out of the hands of other people’s kids and pass laws that would threaten booksellers’ rights of free expression and free enterprise. They do so by spreading misinformation about what the books contain, falsely claiming books are racist, pornographic, or promote violence when they are actually anti-racist, merely contain queer characters, and depict violence in order to condemn it. Studies overwhelmingly show that these complaints are selectively leveled at books by and about marginalized people, especially those in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.
Since that incident many years ago, I've become someone who can, and often has to, stand up for herself and her community. I am an out and proud transgender woman, something that felt impossible when I was a kid looking for belonging in the English classroom. I would need another letter to tell you all the books I’ve sought for comfort and edification in that journey — along with an extensive bibliography — but trust me when I say they have been my constant companions. I’ve been able to trade the closet and a single progressive classroom for a life brimming with community, a stunning diversity of books, and a chaos of cats, a life in which I get to be a daughter and girlfriend and auntie and godmother in my beloved Brooklyn.
I’ve also gathered better tools to understand challenges like the one that ousted my favorite teacher, the threat they pose to democratic society, and how to resist them. After working at the Greenlight Bookstore shortly after college, I spent a decade at Columbia University, earning a PhD in English and Comparative Literature and staying on as a Lecturer. Teaching political theory for the past four years, I learned to enable conversation about everything from Virtue Ethics to Critical Race Theory in a classroom diverse in experiences and identities. I also had to grapple with the value of reading something you disagree with — whether it’s Aristotle or Angela Davis — and learn to defend assigning a diverse array of texts. It helped my case that almost everyone we read would see reading as liberation, consciousness-raising, or democracy itself.
Nobody has the right to ban books pointing the way to a world where everyone can have these things or their versions of them. If we stay organized, they won’t be able to. I want to hear about what is happening in your stores and communities that threatens the right to read, and what you are doing to defend it. Please write to me at email@example.com to fill me in.
Philomena Polefrone, PhD
Advocacy Associate Manager