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Unoccupied Classroom with Desks and Chairs in the Daytime
Op-Ed May 15, 2023

Book Bans: An Act of Policy Violence Promoting Anti-Blackness

Unoccupied Classroom with Desks and Chairs in the Daytime

Book bans represent acts of policy violence that further codify anti-blackness in the DNA of America. 

Two weeks ago, the NAACP filed a lawsuit in Pickens County, South Carolina, alleging their most recent ban of Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi's book "Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You" from every school district in South Carolina is unconstitutional in that it violates the student's first amendment rights and is politically motivated. Unfortunately, the all-white Pickens County School Board is among a growing list of violent actors who must be stopped. They deliberately censor what literary works kids can and cannot read — and in many cases, having not read the books themselves before voting to ban them. What is more violent, as evidenced by the books they are banning, they choose to censor the teaching of the factually accurate history of Black people. These violent acts are rooted in an un-yielding legacy of racism, prejudice, oppression, and anti-blackness.

As a young boy growing up in rural Mississippi, I recall my aunt filling my bookshelves with books that told the factually accurate history of Black people — often signing books gifted to me for holidays and special occasions such as Kwanzaa and my birthday with the charged phrase, "Know Thy Self." These books often came with money — "…when you finish, I have $20 for you." Today, while they no longer include $20, these acts have extended to a tradition of passing books that tell and affirm the factually accurate history of Black people between us. This practice would not have been required had I attended a school that sought to teach the honesty and factually detailed account of Black people. Today that remains the reality for many Black children. And to make matters worse, far too many Black children whose families have been impacted by the history of racism and oppression won't be able to purchase books for their children — much less incentivize children to read their history as my aunt did me.

The tradition of passing books with my aunt was (and remains today) an act of love and rebellion — more profoundly, it was an act of Black liberation. My aunt was deeply critical of the lack of teaching of the factually accurate history of Black people. She was most struck by the fact that my schools intentionally shared the narratives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. but failed to offer the narratives of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Thus, choosing to reject the complete, factually accurate account of Black people's history.

Books bans have increasingly become the policy tool of anti-black policy leaders who systematically perpetuate intolerance and ignorance. These attempts systematically and disproportionately impact Black youth who would benefit from the literary work's interrogation of society as they shape their understanding of their people's history.  These violent actors know the cascading effect such works would have on all youth's ability to challenge, interrogate, and ask for a better America.  For example, many school districts nationwide have banned "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison. Morrison's work has been integral in shaping classroom conversations across America on race and prejudice. As such, these attempts to censor literature and silence Black writers are politically motivated and profoundly un-American.

This pedagogical violence, caused by actors with no teaching experience in schools, has been painstakingly done to keep the factually accurate history of Black people out of the hands of Black children. And, while in many classrooms across America, teachers have chosen not to teach the factually accurate history of America, it is now being codified through acts of policy violence today — namely, book bans! As these acts of policy violence continue to sprout up as part of intentional acts of anti-blackness in the halls of state legislatures, local school boards meetings, and even Congress, with the recent passage of the Parents Bill of Rights, civil rights leaders must fight against the attack on Black students to keep them from learning the factually accurate history of Black people in America.

For years, this country has successfully worked to pass violent laws to maintain a permanent caste system to include an illiterate fraction of Black people through the passage of Jim Crow laws and literacy tests to ensure Black people could never pick up a book — much less read it to know their history. Today's book bans join the growing list of anti-black violence by a dwindling majority, insistent on keeping Black children from learning the factually accurate history of racism, prejudice, and oppression in America.

We must fight bans on books that teach the honest, factually accurate history of Black people in America most dramatically — from litigation such as the Pickens County, South Carolina case to challenging lawmakers at state capitols and school board members in local communities through both policy debates and electoral politics. As such, the NAACP is committed to preserving, defending, and protecting the factually accurate history of Black people in this country. Especially that of those who, for 400 years, through violent policy acts such as enslavement, forced migration, redlining, sharecropping, gentrification, gerrymandering, segregation, etc., have been relegated to simply existing through white supremacy. As the NAACP works to dismantle these and other acts of policy violence, we ask that you join us in this fight. The NAACP will continue to support local, state, and national efforts to fight back against book bans. Let us know how we can help you fight book bans in your local community!

Derrick Lewis - Youth & College Hero

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