Book Burners v The First Amendment
Why Stamped? Why now?
“We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion” (Hannah Arendt, Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1950).
“To know the past is to know the present. To know the present is to know yourself” (Ibram X. Kendi, Preface to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, 2020).
In the clips above, SC Superintendent of Education candidate Ellen Weaver, in interviews with a “parental autonomy” activist and a right-wing podcaster the State Newspaper generously called a “provocateur, who was present at last year’s January 6 Capitol riot” uses the language of book banners — “lose the country,” “woke nonsense,” “insanity”— to outline a vision of schools marked by a censorship of ideas that don’t conform with a specific partisan view of the world.
In 1976, the Island Trees school district in New York banned eleven books from its school libraries on the grounds that the books were “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” The banned books included: Best Short Stories of Negro Writers, edited by Langston Hughes, Down These Mean Streets, by Piri Thomas, The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud, Go Ask Alice, by Beatrice Sparks, A Hero Ain’t Nothin But A Sandwich, by Alice Childress, Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris, A Reader for Writers, by Jerome Archer, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, and Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver.
Five students sued the Island Trees school district on First Amendment grounds, and in 1982, the case made it to the Supreme Court. While the Court was divided, essentially, the outcome of the case was that, while school boards could constitutionally remove books on educational grounds, they could not do so on '“narrowly partisan or political” grounds.
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As the Justice Brennan’s opinion pointed out, “the only books at issue in this case are library books, books that by their nature are optional rather than required reading”:
It appears from the record that use of the Island Trees school libraries is completely voluntary on the part of students. Their selection of books from these libraries is entirely a matter of free choice; the libraries afford them an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment that is wholly optional. Petitioners might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values. But we think that petitioners’ reliance upon that duty is misplaced where, as here, they attempt to extend their claim of absolute discretion beyond the compulsory environment of the classroom, into the school library and the regime of voluntary inquiry that there holds sway.
It is significant that when South Carolina districts recently banned Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds (a “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning) they did so not from required reading lists, or even from classrooms, but from school libraries. This week Lexington School District 3 banned the book; two weeks ago Pickens School District banned the same book for five years.
The precedent in Pico seems clear: students have a “right to receive ideas” under the First Amendment, and these districts have singled out a book that speaks directly to the experiences of Black students (and all students living in America), and have banned it with a lack of transparency that makes it impossible to avoid the appearance that they did so “on narrowly partisan or political grounds,” since the book has been the well-documented target of Trumpian political propaganda and “conservative” politicians for several years.
The arguments against Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, such as they are, generally boil down to two variations:
In the first variation, the book is bad for students because it somehow reflects forbidden “tenets” (as identified by Heritage Foundation, National Association of Scholars, ALEC, and other rightwing political groups) that SC legislators failed to make a part of law last session, but which have been dubiously outlined in the state’s budget provisos for the past two years (presumably because no one reads budget provisos and therefore they aren’t subject to the same transparency and public outcry as traditional legislation).
In the second variation, the one favored by Representative Adam Morgan and some other members of the House Education and Public Works subcommittee on last year’s failed censorship bill, Stamped may not be overtly evil, per se, but it is just too much for the state’s innocent children to handle. (I continue to be amazed at how much mileage these folks get out of the conceit that children can’t constantly access the Internet.) Morgan used Stamped From the Beginning in a post on Twitter, to try to support an claim about the idea of antiracism (I think— it was hard to follow his line of reasoning), claiming, “As I said it’s an interesting sociopolitical theory (and I even enjoyed reading Kendi’s book) but when taught as fact/reality in public schools it’s indoctrination of personal political beliefs”. Morgan was likely aware that he was flipping the Supreme Court’s argument around by using very similar words to those in the Pico case (and also not making a whole lot of sense, because he was trying to use Kendi’s work— I think— to support a definition of antiracism that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in either version of Stamped ).
But his argument illustrates an important point about would-be banners of Stamped: many are explicitly against the concept of antiracism, itself, rather than any specific content of the book. A brief, very both-sidesy Fox Carolina article tersely claimed, in explaining the banning of the book in Pickens, “Upset parents say the book manipulates students’ thinking, but those in favor say that’s not the case.”
Inasmuch as Stamped is a book with a point of view, it, like all books with points of view (or, in other words, all books that humans would be interested in reading) might indeed manipulate students’ thinking. It might force them to compare versions of history they have learned in school, at home, and from mass media, with their own experiences. It might encourage them to think that the ideology of racism is bad for society, or wrong, or worthy of opposition.
Stamped— like any book about history—might make students (or, more likely, adults with their own ossified ideas about history) uncomfortable, in the sense that any history that includes the realities of slavery, racism, subjugation, and the failure of America to live up to its ideals, might make readers uncomfortable. As a teacher, I believe some discomfort is necessary for learning: that’s why we learn about the “zone of proximal development” theory in educational psychology courses. But, more importantly, discomfort is inevitable for all humans, none more so than those who have been told their very lived perspective is somehow a dangerous partisan “idea” that must be banned.
Chinua Achebe once wrote, of a British administrator to whose racist work he had been subject in school,
Was there any way Joyce Cary could have written a Nigerian novel that we Nigerian students could have accepted as our story? My answer, in retrospect, must be: not likely. And my reason would not be the obvious fact that Cary was a European, but rather because he was part of a tradition of presenting Africa that he had absorbed at school and Sunday school…
American students, too, are subject to writing— history books, novels, textbooks, articles— that fails to, or chooses not to, reflect their experiences.
Contrast Reynolds’ perspective, which at every turn takes students—and specifically Black students— seriously, and treats them as an integral part of the narrative, with this line from The Americans (Houghton Mifflin, 2014 edition), a textbook which has been adopted in South Carolina schools: “However, by the late 1600s, a decline in the indentured servant population coupled with an increase in the colonies’ overall wealth spurred colonists to begin importing slaves in huge numbers” (46). Whose perspective on slavery and race is reflected here? (The book also contains an analysis of the Civil War surely designed to placate Southern textbook buyers: “Lincoln’s victory convinced Southerners that they had lost their political voice… South Carolina led the way, seceding from the Union on December 20, 1860.” Whose perspective on the causes of the Civil War are represented here?)
Another SC text, Magruder’s American Government (2016 edition), defines immigrants as “those aliens legally admitted as permanent residents”. Whose perspective is being represented? (The text later acknowledges that “America is now an inescapably multiracial society. Still, unlike whites, African Americans live with the consequences of America’s history of racial dissemination every day of their lives.”)
United States Government (Houghton Mifflin, 2018 edition) states that “Perhaps no group has suffered more unfair treatment in American history than African Americans” (322).
Relatively sad and lifeless prose aside, these books have perspectives. And unlike Stamped, they are being, or have been, required for South Carolina history and government courses. They are intended to “manipulate” minds about history and— to the extent they bother to address it— race. Should they be banned?
In many history and government texts used in schools, the major focus of the Black experience is on slavery and oppression. Few examples of the contributions of Black intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians, and celebrities are provided. The perspective on Black people, if they show up at all, is often from the point of view of White people.
For students who have never seen themselves, their families, or their peers in books, having that experience can be powerful. For those who might read a book giving an antiracist perspective on history, and not see their own perspective represented, there could also be a powerful opportunity for that most dangerous of educational experiences: empathy.
The question is: Why is Stamped so offensive to some people? Let’s set aside for now the many people who have never read it, those who have read intentionally out-of-context excerpts, and those who hate whatever their political leaders tell them to hate. (Those nonreaders are likely a huge part of the problem, which is why they have generally preferred books with lots of pictures to difficult or dense texts.)
But for those rare readers who are also book-burners, Stamped is obviously not the only text that deals with the issue of racism, or that makes apparently shocking or developmentally inappropriate claims like “racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce and consume them” or “race has been a strange and persistent poison in American history”. It might— unlike even Kendi’s book— be the most accessible book to do so, particularly for Black students, because it has been written by one of the most celebrated Young Adult writers our time, Jason Reynolds (who, if you are a teacher, you probably already know is the best thing since sliced bread for getting kids to read).
To put it another way, Stamped is certainly an argumentative text. It is arguing for a view of history through an antiracist lens; that is, it makes sense of historical events, and selects which events to discuss, in order to make the argument that racism is a foundational aspect of the American story (which one need not be a CRT scholar to observe) and that therefore the only positive way forward for the country to is to embrace antiracism, which Reynolds (and Kendi) repeatedly define in both books as a rejection of racism, against any group.
Why is countering racism by saying there is nothing wrong with Black people so threatening?
When he visited my classroom last year, Representative Morgan returned several times to the notion that certain ideas were fundamentally inappropriate for children. Ironically, Morgan had a long, very interesting, and very open conversation with the children in my room about various philosophies, including Nazism and totalitarianism, and told them some relevant stories about law professors who were “conservative” or “liberal”. He didn’t seem to feel that these seventeen-year-olds were too innocent or too dumb to handle complex topics.
But a discussion of the history race through the lens of a Black historian and a Black poet and YA author is apparently so dangerous that it must be banned not only from the required curriculum, not only from the classroom, but from the school library, itself.
I do actually think that Stamped is dangerous, in the same way that “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin, or Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahesi Coates, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston are dangerous. They are dangerous to the status quo, dangerous to systems that rely on the oppression of others, dangerous because they all celebrate Black identity, humanity, and joy. As Baldwin wrote of Black students in America in 1963, “once he starts believing that he is a man, [the Black child] has begun to attack the entire power structure”.
What’s worse— to the book banners— is presumably the delightful accessibility of Reynolds’ prose. History— the kind often provided by state-adopted texts— is often boring, often two-dimensional, and often inaccurate. Reynolds’ prose is quick, lively, and approachable:
I know we’ve been going on and on about the people working to justify slavery, but it’s important (very important) to note that there were also people all along the way who stood up and fought against these ridiculously racist ideas with abolitionist ideas. In this particular case, the case of Vanini’s theory of polygenesis, a group of Mennonites in Germantown, Pennsylvania, rose up… The Mennonites didn’t want to leave behind one place of oppression to build another in America, so they circulated an antislavery petition on April 18, 1688, denouncing oppression due to skin color by equating it with oppression due to religion. Both oppressions were wrong.
I’m not a historian— Kendi is, and the book takes most of its factual content from Kendi’s book— but I am an English teacher, and I can recognize how hard it is to write a history book (or a not history book, as Reynolds calls it) that anyone, especially students, might want to read. That at least two school districts have gone out of their way to explicitly ban this particular book is more than worrisome: it is a sign that the manufactured panic of anti-“CRT,” which has snowballed into anti-“woke” (picking up additional transphobic and homophobic and Christofascist weight and power as it crashes through our institutions) is in danger of crushing whatever is left of our democracy.
Book bans aren’t new, but these book bans come with support from some of the same folks who supported the January 6 Insurrection. If Adam Morgan actually read The Origins of Totalitarianism, he might recognize in our current moment the kinds of hypernationalist (on the surface) antidemocratic movements Arendt chronicled in Europe in the lead-up to the World Wars and to the Holocaust.
The above tweets from Adam Morgan represent a now-familiar progression, from general statements about how “totalitarianism” (presumably, whatever “cancel culture” or “anti-freedom” “radical Left” ideas Morgan opposes) to qualified censorship (Kendi is bad, but only for the innocent babes, and only because the idea of opposing racism somehow implies everyone is racist) to support for the “traditional” values of Georgia Meloni, who many spectators have linked to fascism and who leads the “neo-fascist” party Brothers of Italy. Meloni has embraced much of the same rhetoric as anti- “woke” book-banners in the US, saying during in a speech in Spain, “Yes to the natural family. No to the LGBT lobby. Yes to sexual identity. No to gender ideology.”
And of course, this same kind of analysis is what Kendi does in Stamped From the Beginning and what Reynolds echoes in Stamped. For example, Arendt discusses, in her chapters on the origins of antisemitism, that the early antisemitic parties, opposed to their nation-states and eyeing domination and destruction of their international enemies, latched onto the Jewish people among them as a convenient scapegoat and rallying cry to bring in popular support to their movement. Jewish people, Arendt argues, were a prime target because of their outsider status— forced to rely on the protection of privileges granted by the state for financial services provided, they were seen as the state’s most loyal supporters and therefore as proxies for the state. Reynolds writes:
So, all that antiracist talk coming from the Mennonites was shut down because slaveholders didn’t like their business talked about like it was wrong.
Because they needed their slaves.
Because their slaves made them money.
It’s really all quite simple.
The maddening thing about all of the faux outrage over Kendi and Stamped is the idea that children don’t know America contains structural racism unless “CRT” or “wokeism” or Stamped tells them. Children aren’t stupid, and education isn’t supposed to try to keep them stupid. When we try to keep children ignorant, we simply encourage them to divest from society, to stop trusting teachers and other authority figures (which, sometimes, is the best thing for them, but which eliminates much of the good that public education— or any kind of education— can do). In his 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin wrote,
The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it — at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Many children in America have already had to live with history that has a perspective, with history that is designed to “manipulate their thinking”. And the message, poignantly translated by Reynolds in Stamped is: “Make yourself small, make yourself unthreatening, make yourself the same, make yourself safe, make yourself quiet, to make White people comfortable with your existence”.
Of course, book banning is not new in America, nor are false outrages or sudden moral panics about ideas that will supposedly corrupt the youth. In 1981, for example, the state of Georgia passed a law that would delight would-be book banners in South Carolina today, prohibiting the display of “lewd” or “lascivious” books in any place minors might see them.
But the enduring point of the Supreme Court opinion, and of the First Amendment, is that ideas should not be banned because they provoke discomfort, or even because they may “manipulate” children by forcing them to— gasp— broaden their horizons at— double gasp— school, the place designed to promote engagement in a diverse, democratic society. In a free society, open exchange of ideas should be limited only with extreme caution. We all understand there are limits on speech in many spheres of life, but when we outlaw beliefs just because we don’t share them, we become, either in spirit or in fact, the next book burners.
Kurt Vonnegut, no stranger to censorship, wrote, in a now-famous letter to a school North Dakota School board member who had, in 1973, burned copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, that “books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”
If you’re in Columbia in the near future, I can’t recommend the Elizabeth Catlett exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art highly enough. I was struck especially by her 1982 lithograph “Madonna,” the power of that piece and her other works contrasting intensely with the whitewashing bullshit of people banning books like Stamped. Black children deserve to see themselves reflected powerfully, and non-Black people deserve and need to see that, too, in addition to seeing themselves in the literature and art they experience in schools.
Blakemore, Erin. "The history of book bans—and their changing targets—in the U.S.". National Geographic. September 6, 2022.
Other Duties (as assigned) is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.