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Why Laphonza Butler is reading banned books out loud on the Senate floor

So far the California Democrat has uttered the words of Audre Lorde and Maya Angelou

Sen. Laphonza Butler, seen here in April, says she will continue to read passages from books targeted for bans around the country, saying she hopes to “bring a voice at the national level.”
Sen. Laphonza Butler, seen here in April, says she will continue to read passages from books targeted for bans around the country, saying she hopes to “bring a voice at the national level.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

If you were looking for the book “Sister Outsider” a few years ago at a school in Tennessee, you might not have found it there. But thanks to California Sen. Laphonza Butler, parts of it now live in the Congressional Record.

“Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a Black woman, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing work — who has come to ask you, are you doing yours?” Butler said on the Senate floor in February, quoting Audre Lorde.

In a quest to highlight book banning across the country, the Democratic senator has taken to reading passages from some of the targets out loud on the floor. “Sister Outsider,” a collection of Lorde’s speeches and essays, was temporarily pulled from the shelves of one school library over its LGBTQ themes.

“Learning should not be political,” Butler said in an interview.

Book banning isn’t an everyday issue for her constituents. A new law in California takes aim at the practice and allows the state to fine schools if they withhold instructional materials about LGBTQ people and other identity groups. 

“What I wanted to do on behalf of California constituents is to lift up the organizing and activism, the leadership of our state and bring a voice at the national level to an issue that is impacting now Americans in 23 states,” Butler said.

In 2023, the number of book titles that were targeted for censorship at public libraries increased by 92 percent, and school libraries saw an 11 percent increase, according to the American Library Association

“We are talking about learning in school and who and what our children actually get to learn. Do they get the true history?” said Butler, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Butler has only a short time left in the Senate, after announcing she wouldn’t run to keep the seat. In her final months she has been talking about the next generation. Last week, for example, she introduced a bill that would help high schoolers register to vote, and earlier in April she formed a youth advisory council. And she plans to keep doing the banned-book read-alouds.

“As only the 12th Black senator to serve in this chamber and the first openly LGBTQ Black senator to serve, I will not stand by silently as our stories get erased,” she said in her Feb. 29 floor speech.

In March she read from Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a pick suggested by one of her interns. Joining her was Sen. Tina Smith, who read an excerpt from “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, which frequently appears on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. It tells the story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raised a chick together.

The Minnesota Democrat said Butler is “reclaiming the issue” from Republicans who have thrust so-called culture war issues like book banning into the spotlight. 

“She’s pointing out the ridiculousness of banning books that have been so meaningful. Not only are they harmless, but they can also be really helpful in helping kids,” Smith said. 

Before she came to the Senate, Butler was a union leader, a regent of the University of California, and president of EMILY’s List, where she worked to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights up and down the ballot.

“The freedom to learn is a challenge that impacts the future of our democracy and those young leaders who are going to be in the seats when we’re not,” Butler said. 

Other senators have launched recurring speeches in the past, like Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and his “Time to Wake Up” series demanding climate action. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a fellow Democrat, has regularly come to the floor to tell the stories of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients and urge the Senate to pass his Dream Act

With debates on book banning more often unfolding at the local level, whether in state legislatures or heated school board meetings, it’s a less obvious choice for a senator to spend time on.

But as bans continue to make headlines, Congress has waded into the topic. A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September focused on how book bans limit liberty and literature, while a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing in October was titled “​Protecting Kids: Combatting Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries.”

House Democrats introduced a pair of bills in December that drew no Republican co-sponsors. One from Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts would require libraries that receive federal funding to maintain a diverse collection of books. Another from Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost of Florida would allow the Education Department to provide grants to school districts to cover expenses incurred while fighting a book ban, such as the cost of legal representation.  

Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced last year that a coordinator in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights would monitor local actions and warn schools that “book bans may violate federal civil rights laws if they create a hostile environment for students,” as domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden said at the time.

Butler said the issue goes beyond local politics. “This is an issue of education, and we have had so many conversations and debates and sweeping pieces of legislation directed toward education in our country, and I think this one belongs squarely in this space,” she said.

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