About a year ago, in Round Rock, Texas, about 20 miles from Austin, complaints about a book on the history of racist ideas in the United States led to threats to remove it from the list of school reading.
But as the local school district debated whether “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” should continue to be part of the curriculum, thousands of parents, teachers and community members signed a petition calling on the district board to keep the book on school shelves.
The Round Rock Black Parents Association played a crucial role in mobilizing against the attempted ban of the book, which is written by black authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and is a young adult adaptation of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016.
The parents’ association has organized groups such as ACT Anti-racists unite speak out for diverse literature at a local school board meeting.
“Removing this book would have completely whitewashed the story, and that’s not what we’re for,” Ashley Walker, 33, one of more than 400 members of the Round Rock Black Parents Association, said.
District administrators ultimately decided to keep “Stamped,” which the American Library Association said was one of the most contested books of 2020, on school shelves.
Over the past year, as part of a national campaign to delete books by and about LGBTQ people or people of color from schools has heated up, black parents have organized, pushing back on challenges to books that address racism and racial identity and calling on schools to reinstate books previously prohibited. Although these bans often occur under the pretext that the books teach critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework for analyzing racism in the United States, Walker said the books targeted in his state had nothing to do with critical race theory.
“It’s about the experiences of children,” she said. “It’s about black boy joy or black girl magic, but we’re told it’s about critical race theory – just because our children need to see themselves in these books. .”
“We will fight this battle”
Last year, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, signed an invoice which regulates how United States history and certain ideas about race may be taught in schools. At least nine states in predominantly Republican areas have passed similar “anti-critical race theory” bills.
Before the bill became law, Walker and her daughter, who is in first grade, tried to persuade state senators to vote against it. Walker remembers knocking on senators’ doors at the Capitol in Texas, begging them to reconsider their votes.
“We went to talk to them and ask them not to support this bill because it was going to prevent children from learning the truth,” Walker said. “My daughter being with me, she just turned 6, but she was able to talk about how she wanted to see herself in the textbooks and the curriculum.”
After the bill passed, State Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, released a list of about 850 books he wanted banned from school libraries. He claimed the books “made students feel uncomfortable” because of their content on race and sexuality.
“Unfortunately, they passed it anyway,” Walker said of the bill. “Now we’re in Texas, and we have to deal with everyone reviewing every book you can think of.”
This is not the first time book bans have targeted black communities. For decades, Richard Wright’s 1940 autobiographical novel “Native Son,” about a poor black man living in Chicago, faced bans in the United States due to complaints of violent and sexually graphic content.
Yet amid criticism of Wright’s books, her popularity soared, according to Maryemma Graham, founding director of the Black Writing History Project at the University of Kansas.
Graham added that book ban protests have always been part of the fight for inclusion and equal rights for black people in the United States. Even as these challenges to black literature persisted, black parents still used other outlets, including churches, book clubs, and historically black people. colleges to fill these gaps.
“There’s always been this notion, OK, we’re going to fight this battle, but we’re also going to teach these books and write these books and encourage writers in these other settings,” Graham said. “What you see parents doing now is resistance in terms of what is considered formal education, but I don’t want us to forget about all these other informal approaches that people have much, much more control over. So you want to do both and not just one.
“My eyes have been opened”
As challenges to books in schools become more common, Nora Pelizzari, communications director for the nonprofit National Coalition Against Censorship, said a majority of challenged books end up being kept on shelves.
“Book review policies, when well written, solicit input and decision from a diverse group of stakeholders and encourage the review process to focus on educational value…as opposed to…reading at aloud of a particularly explicit passage during a school board meeting,” said Pelizzari.
Still, Pelizzari said it can be difficult for black parents in predominantly non-black communities to publicly protest these challenges.
A lawyer for the Round Rock Black Parents Association, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said school board meetings about disputed books can be particularly heated.
“My eyes were opened to the fear some parents have that their white children feel less than white,” said the parent, whose children are biracial. “But my question for them is, ‘Either your ancestors are associated with abolitionists or they were pro-slavery. … Which one are you trying to protect your child from? »
The parent continued, “Racial equity shouldn’t be a trigger word for anyone, but it is, and more often than not, for white parents, it’s a trigger word because it equates to treating them, them and their children, racists.”
In San Diego, Rai Wilson, an educator and parent of two school-age children, said it’s frustrating to see the ongoing struggle to limit book diversity.
“My sixth grader read ‘Stamped,'” Wilson said. “When they see themselves in a study program, it makes their story more understandable to them. He wouldn’t let go. »
Wilson said the debate centered on the needs of white families.
“It’s ironic when white parents say, ‘Teaching this is going to hurt my child,’ when not teaching this is going to hurt our children,” Wilson said.
“We are really about learning”
Cara McClellan, associate attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said states and school districts that address these challenges leave themselves vulnerable to discrimination claims.
“School districts have a responsibility to ensure they provide an inclusive environment for all students,” McClellan said. “In districts where students are already experiencing hostility based on race, LGBT status or religion…schools are now removing material that we know could be a buffer against hostility.”
Walker said her daughter has a personal library of books featuring black characters, but that hasn’t stopped her from asking her mother for long blonde hair.
“At school, she gets the message that her dark skin isn’t pretty, and so we had to have this conversation, and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “If my 6-year-old, who lives in a house with someone who is very active in the black community, is going through this, what about those kids who don’t have the same opportunity?”
Before the Round Rock Texas board canceled the ‘Stamped’ challenge, Walker said parents, worried about the board’s decision, bought the book so their kids could read it for themselves. .
“In case the book was banned, we still had people supporting this book and showing that we really wanted to learn the whole story,” she said.