Like many white American children, I grew up being taught America was a place of freedom and liberty and that, despite its troubled past, America was now a place where people could express themselves and tell their stories and essentially, not have to worry about being censored and prosecuted.
I have a distinct memory of an animated movie when I was in kindergarten. The film followed the story of two kids from the 1960s, one was black and the other was white; while also following rather vaguely the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the events leading to his “I have a dream” speech. The film does talk about race relations and policies at the time but adapts it in a way small kids would understand. Then at the end of the film, the two kids put aside their differences and become friends. While the film wasn’t perfect and was quite old for an elementary school-er in 2006, it should have served as an excellent introduction to race relations and our county’s difficult history surrounding race.
However, that was kind of it. Racism and the civil rights movement were wrapped up nicely when I was a kid. Sure in history classes we talked about slavery, reconstruction, the civil rights movement and voters rights movements but everything had been formed as issues of the past and not something that still affects out country. This narrative of no more racism in America was pretty easy for me to accept as a child. If America was the best country in the world, why would it continue to do bad things? This narrative was also easier to swallow because news of hater crimes and race related incidents were often sidelined or not talked about at all and there was no social media to easily bring attention to issues back then. Throughout my time in public schools, I don’t truly remember talking about race as a current issue until my junior year of high school.
Present day however, many people my age (late teens and twenties) are much more aware of these issues, especially after the protest of police brutality and actions surrounding minorities brought race back to the front page of American politics.
Issues between school administrations and their students is not a new phenomenon and can be seen throughout history. However it can truly be difficult for a student body to do anything about the administration and practices of the schools we go to. One such thing is the censorship and banning of books.
As someone who grew up loving history and someone who incorporated it into my Major and Minor, I personally believe that censorship has no place when it comes to published works of literature and media, especially in a historical lense. Each person should be able to look at a text critically and draw their own conclusions. Then, they should be able to reevaluate and change their opinions based on debate and other people’s views of that text. Academic literature and factual information should also be available even if it could be considered offensive or difficult to swallow because often the hardest things to learn about in history are the most important and critical to making sure we do not repeat the same mistakes again in the future.
Yet even now in America, public education institutions seek to censor and ban historical works that speak about race and race relations in America.
The Washington Post reported on September 25th that the school board in York, Pennsylvania had introduced a long list of banned books and other media. Almost all of the list included books relating to anti-racism and historical figures surrounding anti-racism and the civil rights movement. This included biographies about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr designed for children. A spokesperson for the school district claimed that these titles were removed after the death of George Floyd and the protest that followed and that they were removed because some parents in the district “believe that rather than uniting on diversity, certain resources polarize and divide on diversity and are based on disputed theories and facts.”
While this decision may appear to be an innocent attempt to protect children from difficult to talk about topics, unchecked it leads to whitewashing and suppression of BIPOC groups. Through the past few years we have seen more mainstream and public attempts to maintain the dominant group’s version of American history, where essentially, bad things in society happened in the past but don’t anymore.
As of late September, national criticism plus pressure from York’s student body has prompted the York School board to reverse the ban. The student body claimed “their thoughts were being invalidated” and protested using signs that said things like “educate not indoctrinate”. A spokesperson for the Panther Anti-Racist Union (a student led organization at Central York high School said “The reversal of this ban was surprising but not surprising in a way most think,” and followed it up in a statement to the Washington Post by saying “We hope that this was a lesson for this community and leadership: that injustice cannot and will not be tolerated any longer.”
Whether it’s banning books in York, Pennsylvania or the banning of the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Florida and Virginia Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin’s plan to do the same if he is elected, acts like this work to maintain the status quo and silence uncomfortable parts of American society and history. It is difficult for a lot of people to understand that there are multiple histories depending on the cultural perspective that a certain topic is being told from. This doesn’t necessarily mean one cultural history is completely wrong but perhaps not the entire story or, quite frankly, history told through the lens of BIPOC peoples often tell a story that contradicts what is taught to children in public schools. Stories like Christopher Columbus and Pocahontas (or Manifest Destiny in general) often show indigenous peoples as savages and inferior to whites. Some stories also show them as violent and dangerous when often white explorers and settlers were the perpetrators of violence.
“History is written by the victor” is a good metaphor to be aware of when learning new things about the past and often the past can be politicized for the present or simply disregarded or changed. Finally, it’s important to look at history, not as absolute fact, but as stories from different cultures that need to be compounded to see the bigger picture and that if certain pieces of that story are withheld, then history becomes a powerful tool for the dominant groups in our society.