Students fight back as schools censor Malala, Sesame Street
Students and educators across the country are trying to figure out how to learn / teach the harsh realities of our world while lobbying against right-wing censorship banning topics. In a school district in Pennsylvania, kids have had enough and are fighting.
Last year, heated debates in schools led schools in York, Pa., To ban (and, in some cases, hold ongoing “reviews”) a four-page list of material. In the list sent to teachers in the Central District of York, books banned from classroom use included titles like a biography on Rosa Parks and 19 other books in the “Who is / was _____?” series. (Not for everyone, of course. Just people like Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, Susann B. Anthony, Frida Kahlo, etc.) They include a comprehensive list that is just a book spreadsheet, based on grade level, that lists book recommendations written by or about people of color.
What we don’t talk about as much is that this Tory backlash included a book called Come to my place by Dr Seuss. The book presents children from all over the world who discover each other’s different cultures. People really went out of their way to buy his racist books that were no longer in print (as well as those that weren’t challenged, but bought anyway to ‘own the libraries’), but this book that came at the end of his career and looking to celebrate diversity and make amends? Yes, this the book may be banned, apparently.
Prohibited material doesn’t end with books. There are articles, videos, documentaries (even from PBS), presentations, webinar recordings, and virtual events. The list includes everything about the Learning For Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) website, and even the Sesame Street/ CNN town hall tackles racism. They went after ELMO AND BIG BIRD.
Talk to The morning call (TMC)– anonymously, to protect their work – one teacher said the list was “disgusting”: “Let’s just call it what it is – every author on this list is a black voice. (That’s right, before we dive into the list of picture books and spreadsheets.)
A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association said TMC in an email, “They’re banning ‘Sesame Street’ material, but not David Duke. They ban PBS, but not the KKK… They even banned the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators’ statement on racism – which recognizes that racism exists and that it is bad.
School board meetings, city council meetings, and other types of local government have been the most effective battleground for QAnon and conservative media talking points across the country. This goes beyond the COVID-19 debates, as these spaces are used to fight any attempt to tackle racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableist policies / practices in our communities. We’re still in the “talking about racism is worse than real racism” part of the timeline.
The administrator calls this ban a “freeze” (which lasted over a year) for “review”. They know that “ban” sounds bad, but the change of language doesn’t hide what they’re doing.
Students (like educators) call this censorship what it is: an attack on diversity. The all-white council and the apparent arbiter of truth have dismissed students and critics of these changes, even though the documents “under review” ALL deal with race and racism.
This attitude led Edha Gupta, organizer and student at Central York High School, to lead the Panther Anti-Racist Union student group to organize from September 8 to 13, when the school board meeting was held. (The use of “panther” is just a coincidental similarity to the Black Panthers, as the school’s mascot is the panthers as well.)
Gupta told ABC 27 that when they heard the news, they felt like they had been punched in the stomach: “I was shocked, terrified, disappointed.”
Another student organizer, Christina Ellis, said removing these books takes history away from black and brown students. Olivia Pituch, a participating white student, said, “Many of these resources can help people notice micro-aggression, notice small acts of racism, teach children to accept and embrace others.”
Censorship of books is against our First Amendment rights. And when these books are written exclusively by or about people of color, no one is fooled.
All young people deserve the right to read and learn in school, without censorship or discrimination. https://t.co/Lrqa2p4i09
– ACLU (@ACLU) September 16, 2021
The authors and a few others who made the list are also speaking out against these types of bans.
I just published By Keeping My Books Banned, Central York, PA School Board Has Chosen Crass Censorship Over… https://t.co/2qh3GmUI28 @AfricanaCarr @pamperry @ ToddStevenBurr1 @adjoabasamoah @LurieFavors @Makani_Themba @RukiaLumumba @MonifaBandele @EbonyUceo #banned books
– Nkechi Taifa (@Nkechi_Taifa) September 15, 2021
With a new superintendent approved last Monday, it’s unclear whether the demands of these students will be met. Based on my recent experience and my involvement in shared governance within the University of Houston system, I would say this is unlikely. He has already started his tenure with vague language of unity that focuses on healing, the urgency of justice, and the violence of the status quo.
Forbidden Book Week 2021
Created by the American Library Association (ALA), September 26 to October 2 is considered “Forbidden Book Week”. After the last few years of the Top 10 Most Contested Books featuring mostly books with LGBTQ + representation, 2020 has taken a turning point. If you thought this would be (again) material reflecting the experience of black people in the United States, you would be right.
Sixty percent of the books on the 2020 list were cited for reasons such as anti-police, “divisive” and “one-sided” views. Sounds like the school board mentioned above or, heck, the Texas Republican leadership. The hatred you give, by Angie Thomas, left the list in 2019 for the first time since its release in 2017, but returned in 2020 after a summer highlighting racial injustice.
This continuing backlash against the discussion of systemic racism or even overt oppression leads me to believe that when the ALA releases this year’s numbers they will be similar to 2020. Meanwhile, the York students, led by the ‘Panther Anti-Racist Union, continue to defend their right to read.
(Going through CNN, featured image: Sesame Street / HBO)
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