Courage Is Contagious: Martha Hickson’s story is the inspiration that we need

Martha Hickson "is putting herself on the line and giving librarians strength to hold fast to their views and their values and push back against these attacks,” says Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. 

“Does it feel as if the wheels are falling off of EVERYTHING?” an exasperated poster cried out recently into the ether that is Twitter.

Indeed, it’s February, and given ­Omicron and so much else, we might long for a reset on the year, a chance to right ourselves, and steady our faith in the future.

Enter this month’s lead story.

We had been looking to present first-person ­accounts from the trenches of censorship, the ­librarian perspective being a critical element of the story and often missing from coverage by other outlets.

This month’s feature well had been planned when Martha Hickson, a high school librarian in New Jersey, submitted an 1,800-word account of her experience this fall, when angry parents called for the removal of titles, initially Gender Queer by Maia ­Kobabe and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, targeting the library, Hickson, and ­intellectual freedom.

Clear-eyed, with unflinching detail, Hickson lays out her story. From raucous board meetings and ­accompanying hate-filled rhetoric to a group of students from the school’s gay-straight alliance who arrive in her office one day offering to help, the ­account takes the reader along every step of the way in a journey that’s very personal, and also, as we can imagine, playing out in schools and libraries across the country. Hickson’s response to attacks on both her person and her profession is as direct and purposeful as the retelling of her tale, which leads our coverage.

This wasn’t the first censorship rodeo for the ­librarian, who defended Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home from district administrators who tried to limit access to the graphic memoir in her library two years prior.

Christopher Finan knows well the cyclical aspect of censorship and the endurance required to resist it.

A past president of the American Booksellers ­Foundation for Free Expression (ABFE) and currently executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Finan has championed ­intellectual freedom for 40 years. “I look at this with a long ­perspective,” he says, recounting the culture wars dating to the 1970s, “How terrifying it was, how painful it was, and the people who were attacked,” including Cincinnati museum ­director Dennis Barrie, who was indicted on obscenity charges for a 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit and later acquitted.

It’s a helpful memory, says ­Finan. “The defenders of free speech got together and supported each other and supported people in their community.”

And Hickson is part of that continuum. “What she’s doing is putting herself on the line and giving librarians strength to hold fast to their views and their values and push back against these attacks,” he says, adding that back in the day, “There wasn’t a horde of us—but there isn’t a horde of them, either.”

There’s a broad foundation for this fight, according to Finan, whose book How Free Speech Saved Democracy (Steerforth Press) publishes in April. “And these fights are winnable,” he says.

Hickson’s story concludes with her hard-won w­isdom to help other librarians and educators counter future battles with censors.

Finan says, “I’ve always been heartened by people like Martha.”

 

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Kathy Ishizuka

Kathy Ishizuka is editor in chief of School Library Journal.

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