When my daughter was 4 years old, she would cover her head with a coat or blankets if she had done something we considered bad. She thought we could no longer see her even though her legs and arms were showing.
That was funny. Attempting to cover or hide factual history is not.
On May 10, 1933, Nazi-dominated student groups carried out public burnings of books they claimed were “un-German.” The book burnings took place in thirty-four university towns and cities. Works of prominent Jewish, liberal, and leftist writers ended up in the bonfires. The book burnings stood as a powerful symbol of Nazi intolerance and censorship.
In 2021, the Texas battle to ban books from public schools heated up. State lawmakers targeted books about everything from the country’s history of racism, sexual politics, and other “uncomfortable,” realities, extending their efforts to include the shelves of public libraries.
When I read about this, a few thoughts came to my mind:
- Who are they “comforting” with the use of denial?
- Thank God I no longer have children in Texas schools
- Double thank God my parents chose Berkeley after WWII, providing me with my ‘liberal’ learning and critical thinking.
But most importantly, do they really believe that hiding books will make the facts go away?
Here’s why that’s crazy
People talk! Family histories are primarily oral. My maternal grandmother kept a journal that she began writing in 1904. I treasure it and hope its pages can survive more decades, but the better stories were handed down, verbally. For example, if a school attempts to call enslaved people happy, immigrant laborers, those of us descended from an enslaved person will know that is not accurate. And share that with others.
Hiding facts about the Jim Crow south, will never remove the scars of its legacy or erase stories passed down about incidents of violence and murder.
My father was a gutsy Louisiana Creole whose second language was English. The story goes that somewhere in either New Orleans or another town, he was confronted by members of the KKK. Frustrated, he said to them, “I’m just back from the war, if you want to kill me, then f…k it, kill me now!” Not sure why, but they left him alone. Shortly after that, exhausted by racism and racial violence, he left Louisiana and vowed he would never live there again. He never did.
That is only one of my personal stories.
In museums and libraries across the country and the world, larger stories still live. The writings of Frederick Douglass, the former enslaved African American, social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman, give personal accounts of his experiences as an enslaved person in America. His factual descriptions counter the Hollywood fallacy of the happy complacent Negro slave and the attempts to whitewash the brutality of slavery.
Who can forget watching news reports in the 1960s, showing people attacked by police with dogs and hoses because they wanted the right to vote? A denial of that right based on race.
Back to the Stories
My maternal grandmother grew up on a so-called reservation. The stories of her childhood stood in stark contrast to what was in old schoolbooks, television shows, and movies. They were not savages, but people with their own languages, belief systems, and customs, victimized---their land taken, and their lives destroyed. I think that all students should learn the truth about America’s history, pretty or not.
Who are we Comforting in Texas?
Books dealing with difficult truths are not “comfortable,” for whom? I feel pretty damn good when truth triumphs over lies. But my therapist advises me to avoid denial as a life practice. Denial is the comfort drug for those who refuse to accept facts.
At the superficial level, the Texas lawmakers’ attempt to hide history and ‘uncomfortable” subjects is insulting. But it is much worse at its core. It is an attempt to manipulate truth to empower an agenda of white supremacy.
This is a disservice to all students. Non-white students deserve to know all aspects of history and its impact on their ancestors. And white students deserve to know un-sanitized truth. Fact-hiding creates a bubble of fantasy and ignorance for white students. As with most lies, there will come a day of reckoning and they will not be equipped to deal with it. For non-white students, it’s (to use a Texas term), chickenshit.
Although I no longer live in Texas, I feel deep concern for the children there. How will they cope when seated next to students from more advanced educational systems? How will they work side by side with diverse people while holding the false assumption that they are somehow inherently superior vs unfairly advantaged, or inherently inferior vs unfairly disadvantaged?
Political gymnastics aside, reality cannot support a lie over time. The covers, like my daughter’s coats, must come off. I hope for Texas students it will be sooner than later.
And in case you want to buy or re-buy those banned books, here is the list I found. Give them as gifts!
• Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson
• How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
• The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, by Margaret Atwood
• We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
• Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
• The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, by Jenny Nordberg
• Reluctantly Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
• Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
• The Year They Burned the Books, by Nancy Garden
• The Cider House Rules, by John Irving