On December 21, 1837, a South Carolina Congressman proposed a gag rule to the United States Congress that any petition or discussion related to slavery must be immediately tabled without consideration. The following year this ban was adopted and remained in effect for a decade. I learned this tidbit of American history from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Calendar of Racial Justice, which comes in the form of a short daily email describing some civil rights events that occurred that day. I highly recommend subscribing to this; so important to keep learning our nation's history.
Coincidentally, yesterday, December 21st, I also got around to reading about a Florida high-school English teacher seeking to ban 150 books from her school district’s libraries. This was in Popular Information, one of several newsletters I like to read.
One book she seeks to ban is When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball. Wilma Rudolph excelled in track and field and was the first woman from the United States to win three gold Olympic medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Wilma grew up in Clarksville, Tennessee, during Jim Crow, and attended segregated schools. As a child, Wilma was struck by polio and was told she’d forever walk with a brace. The 32-page book for elementary school children is the story of a strong and determined girl who overcame great obstacles, including prejudice, to become a world-class athlete.
This teacher acknowledges that it’s a true story of Rudolph’s experiences but objects to the book because it “trashes and puts down those who are not black.” She claims the book is “white-shaming” and will make white students uncomfortable, and that this “race-baiting” book is inappropriate for any student.
Efforts such as these are part of a highly organized nationwide Ban CRT (Critical Race Theory) Movement advanced by Fox News and conservative political factions. And this past year, more than half the states have introduced legislation to ban CRT, which has become the bogeyman for people unwilling to acknowledge the history of racism in our country and how it continues to have an impact on our communities.
Scholars and activists who discuss CRT are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past. They are saying that we have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts our lives today. Refusing to discuss issues of racism and prejudice does not help us create a more fair and just society. I highly recommend this article from the Brookings Institution about what CRT is and why there are efforts to prohibit teaching about the historic discrimination experienced by numerous groups in this country. It is an undisputed fact that state and federal laws assumed the inferiority of certain groups and thus denied us the rights and liberties enshrined in the United States Constitution. This contributed to the inequities we live with today, which include significant disparities in wealth, educational attainment, health status, and life expectancy.
The anti-CRT movement doesn’t just want to ban books dealing with racial and ethnic group discrimination; they object to books depicting misogyny and the empowerment of women and girls, as well as books reflecting the reality of the LGBTQ community.
According to a PEN America report, in the school year 2021-2022, more than 1,600 books were banned from school libraries. The bans affected 138 school districts in 32 states. PEN America is an organization founded 100 years ago and “works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literature of others. Its members are a nationwide community of more than 7,500 novelists, journalists, nonfiction writers, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other writing professionals, as well as devoted readers and supporters who join with them to carry out PEN America’s mission." I’m grateful that such organizations exist.
This same Florida school teacher is seeking to ban a book called And Tango Makes Three, which is the true story of two male Penguins, Roy and Silo, who lived in the Central Park Zoo and were inseparable. The pair build a nest together of rocks, and after the zookeeper provides them with an egg, they jointly raise the baby penguin, Tango, after it is hatched. She alleges that the book aims to indoctrinate children and promotes an LGBTQ agenda using penguins.
She is relying on two Florida laws passed this year to support removing these books from the schools' libraries. This teacher claims that When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball violates The Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits instructing students with information that produces “guilt, anguish . . . because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex." Although the Stop WOKE Act applies to classroom instruction, this teacher seeks to extend it to school libraries. The second law she offers in support of banning the penguin book is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, popularly known as the "Don't Say Gay" law. Both laws were signed by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2022. Texas and Florida lead the country in banning books.
When I was growing up in South Texas, books were my window to the world, and I read anything and everything from the two-room Alice Public Library. Back then, there were no characters in those books that looked like me, and none of the books told the stories of my community. But I learned so much about different people and places and ways of being and living.
Reading about current efforts prohibiting access to books that reflect experiences about our racial backgrounds, gender identity, and other forms of prejudices that have shaped us, on the same day as I learn of a federal law banning discussion of slavery in 1837, makes my head spin. The United States will be a better country only if we have access to information, including stories, that reflect the lived experiences of all the communities who call the United States home.