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Henrico schools removes novel 'Out of Darkness' as gubernatorial candidates spar on book censorship
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Henrico schools removes novel 'Out of Darkness' as gubernatorial candidates spar on book censorship

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Henrico School Bus

Henrico County Public Schools removed a book from high school libraries after a parent complained about its sexually explicit content during a School Board meeting.

The move, which triggered an investigation that the district superintendent will review, comes as book censorship in public schools has emerged as a flashpoint in the final days of Virginia’s governor’s race.

Susan Dupuis, a Henrico parent, complained to the Henrico School Board this month that “Out of Darkness,” which centers around a 1936 explosion in East Texas, was inappropriate and contained “pornography.” Dupuis, who couldn’t be reached by phone on Friday, then read aloud an explicit scene in the book. The county’s removal of eight copies from high schools was first reported by the Henrico Citizen and confirmed by a school division spokeswoman.

“All students should be able to find books that speak to them and relate to who they are,” Dupuis said. “However, books that contain pornography, pedophilia, child rape, glorify drug use, glorify antipolice narratives, come with greater responsibility.”

“Out of Darkness” centers around a teenage interracial relationship between a Mexican American girl and an African American boy. In the book, the town blames the African American boy for an explosion at their school that devastates the town of New London, Texas. The book has sexual scenes, but also themes of confronting racism and sexual abuse. Dupuis did not mention race in her comments.

The book is categorized as being for young adults and won a Michael L. Printz Award in 2016, one of the highest honors for young adult literature.

Henrico schools spokeswoman Eileen Cox said the district’s chief learning officer requested a review of the book after Dupuis’ comments. Cox said the “Instructional Materials Review Committee” is reading the book and will recommend to Superintendent Amy Cashwell whether to remove the book permanently.

Ashley Hope Pérez, the author of “Out of Darkness,” said she believes the word “pornography” is misused in Dupuis’ statement, and that the removal of the book shows greater signs of where democracy may be headed. She also said she hadn’t heard backlash about the book, published in 2015, until this year. Other bans of the book happened this year in Texas, where the book is set.

“‘Pornography’ is kind of like a weaponized engagement with human sexuality that’s disconnected from actual lived experiences,” Pérez said in an interview. “Whereas literature engaging with sexual experiences or sexuality is something that’s been part of what literature’s done.

“I think what reveals the motivations being elsewhere is that no one is challenging the existence of the Bible in middle schools and high schools … or Shakespeare, or Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and its rape culture. You know, those books, the classics, are full of sexual content.”

This isn’t the first time Henrico has removed literature that centered around controversial themes, including race. In 2016, the district banned a video that illustrated how white privilege works with an animation depicting a track race. Then chair of the School Board, Micky Ogburn, instructed teachers not to use the video anymore, calling the video “divisive.” The decision from Ogburn drew criticism from scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality.” Crenshaw’s organization, the African American Policy Institute, created the video.

Ogburn stepped down as chair earlier this year after sharing an offensive Facebook post about Dr. Seuss, whose estate ceased publishing books that contained racist stereotypes.

Roscoe Cooper, who replaced Ogburn as chair and is one of two Black School Board members, said he doesn’t feel the district is racist in any way.

“We’re committed to affirming accepting diversity, whether it be religious or gender equality,” Cooper said in an interview on Friday. “I think we’ve proven that we are definitely supportive.”

Parents’ power to challenge books in schools and libraries has become a key issue in the Virginia governor’s race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin has managed to close the gap between himself and Democrat Terry McAuliffe by saying parents should have a greater role in determining what students are being taught in the classroom.

Last week, the Youngkin campaign rolled out an ad featuring a mother who sought to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” by Black author Toni Morrison from Fairfax County Public Schools.

The woman in the ad, Laura Murphy, says Youngkin supports parents’ ability to opt their children out of school content they find too explicit. At the time, Murphy said she wanted the book removed altogether until the district put in place new policies related to explicit material. The ad attacks McAuliffe for vetoing a bill when he was governor that would have allowed parents to block their children from reading books in school that contain sexually explicit material.

The ad doesn’t mention Morrison’s novel, but a Washington Post article from 2013 includes an interview with Murphy’s son, who read the book as a student, calling the book “disgusting.”

“Beloved,” which is at times violent, details the gruesome plight of former slaves after the American Civil War through the eyes of a Black woman.

Youngkin’s campaign has focused on education under the banner “Parents Matter” to close out its campaign. Beyond parents’ say in books, the Republican has described Virginia schools as being shrouded in “chaos” and unsafe, and has called for police officers at every public school campus. Youngkin has also sought to ban “critical race theory” from classrooms, an academic term Republicans have used to refer broadly to the teaching in schools of systemic racism.

Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats have referred to Youngkin’s stance and his most recent ad as a “racist dog whistle.” McAuliffe said it could lead to the banning of books by Black authors or on tough subjects like slavery.

“Youngkin’s closing messages of book banning, white supremacy, antisemitism, and transphobia are disturbing and disqualifying,” McAuliffe said in a statement, adding that the GOP candidate is leaning on “divisive culture wars” to win the election.

Recent polling has shown McAuliffe and Youngkin are in a virtual tie just days ahead of Virginia’s election on Nov. 2.

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