Books Briefing: Fights Over What Kids Read ContinueHistorians in the News
tags: censorship, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
After the Capitol riot, Matt Hawn, a teacher from Tennessee, brought an Atlantic essay to class for his students to analyze: “The First White President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Earlier the class had discussed a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin; later in the year, they watched a performance of Kyla Jenée Lacey’s poem “White Privilege.” Hawn told my colleague Emma Green that he didn’t have an ideological bent in choosing these works; he merely wanted students to evaluate their claims. “For a lot of my students, this is the first time they’re getting the opportunity to even assess something like that,” he said. Before the end of the school year, Hawn was fired. (He’s since appealed his termination; representatives from his school district declined Green’s request for comment on the incident but emphasized in his hearing that they don’t condone racism.)
Hawn’s firing comes at a time when many legislatures—Tennessee’s included—are moving to ban critical race theory in schools. These debates rely on what the Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi (whose book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You has also been censored) argues is an imagined conservative idea of the concept that ignores how those who developed it actually define it. States such as Texas have taken specific aim at Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, a searing New York Times report arguing that slavery is central to our country’s founding. As my colleague Adam Harris writes, these bans and proposed bans “would effectively prevent public schools and universities from holding discussions about racism.”
This moment may be particularly dangerous for students’ intellectual freedom, but restricting what kids read is nothing new. Take Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which has been targeted for its depiction of child abuse. Keeping that work out of children’s hands also keeps readers from what Morrison herself calls a depiction of one of “those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little Black girls.” Another book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, was banned for its use of racial slurs and a “white savior” protagonist. Adults may be right to question its portrayal of race, but when the book is taught well, young people can join in reevaluating the legacy of the novel’s much adored, though deeply flawed protagonist—work that Lee herself did in the sequel, Go Set a Watchman. More recently, censorship of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give has shut kids out of discussions about the deeply personal hurt of police brutality.
It’s no accident that these works consider issues such as race, gender, and disability; a whopping 52 percent of banned or challenged books from 2006 to 2016 included “diverse content.” Rather than protecting children, this practice harms those who are already marginalized by spreading a message that their lives are dangerous and inappropriate, the professor Paul Ringel argued in The Atlantic. Only by encouraging students to discuss difference can we empower them to find self-understanding and acceptance.
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