Ishena Robinson, Deputy Editorial Director
Published: April 28, 2022
This is the third installment of an LDF series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws. You can read the first installment examining the anti-CRT movement and book bans here. The second installment, which takes a broader historical view, can be read here.
Efforts to censor, suppress, ban and otherwise limit discussions about race in America’s public school classrooms have grown since the first installment of this series covering book bans and anti-critical race theory (CRT) mania. In fact, the censorship spree also now includes laws silencing mentions of gender identity and sexual orientation. This evolution of anti-Black, truth ban bills into all out assaults on various historically marginalized groups underscores what has long been clear to LDF in our fight to defend truth in America’s public institutions: there is a multi-pronged attack on the lived experiences, voices, and political participation of the many diverse communities that make up this country, aimed squarely at limiting their ability to influence American democracy.
But we also know that progress is unrelenting, despite the forces that may try to keep truth and justice at bay. The history of our own organization proves this, as do the people working within LDF and around the country to make our institutions more honest, inclusive, and reflective of the mosaic that is America.
Below, three advocates for truth in education share why supporting—rather than limiting—this approach is not only critical to giving all students the quality education they deserve, but also a prerequisite to building an informed citizenry empowered to shape this nation into one where all communities can thrive.
Kate Schuster (KS) is Director of The Hard History Project, an initiative bridging the gap between K-12 teachers and museums and other archival collections in educating students about the histories of slavery, settler colonialism, racism, sexism, and their intersections. Dr. Kesha Moore (KM) is a Senior Researcher and Development Specialist with LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute. And Katrina Feldkamp (KF) is an Education Fellow at LDF, working on our campaign to protect and defend truth in education.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TEACHING TRUTH
Why do you believe it is beneficial to have more accurate discussions in our K-12 classrooms about our nation’s history?
KM: All children have a right to know the truth, to know who they are, to know who they live with, and what their community is like. Parents in particular have this impression of young people as blank slates and as vulnerable. But race is not something that people have to go to school to be taught. We have research showing that children as young as preschoolers recognize race, and respond according to the racial messages that they have internalized. So what happens when we live in racially-segregated communities and our children go to racially-segregated schools and we don’t teach them about what race is and is not—they look and see racial differences in groups and tend to think, “Oh, it must be something about those people.” Because they haven’t been taught that race is a category that we’ve used to organize ourselves and give people privileges based on.
Have you seen this in your own teaching career?
KM: As a college professor, I had to go back and help my students unlearn what they thought to be true. And their response to me would be, “Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t someone tell me this before?” I think our last two generations, Millennials and Gen Z in particular, have grown up in a much more racially and ethnically diverse America than any generation before them. And politically, when you poll them, they are much more open to thinking about difference, to understanding themselves in relationship to other people. And they are much more open in terms of accepting various gender identities.
They get social constructs in a very real way. Before they have even been to a sociology class, they know that there are all different kinds of ways of being in the world and they’re very sensitive to the fact that just because someone exists with a different identity, they should not be marginalized and insulted. They’re a very empathetic generation. And so they’re not the ones that we’re protecting. They not only exist in a place that’s much more diverse, but they want it.
And understanding these constructs is critical to living and thriving in our multiracial democracy.
KF: Before we can challenge systems of racism, sexism, homophobia—we have to understand how they formed and whose interests they serve today. If we don’t have those conversations, and if anti-truth efforts succeed, we risk raising entire generations of students who are not equipped to challenge injustice, who aren’t equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy. And I think worse—who don’t even understand that racism is inflicted by a lot of these systems. And that’s not to say that we currently are succeeding. I think in many instances, we already are cultivating generations of students who don’t properly understand these things, but anti-truth efforts are taking us backward and we simply can’t allow that.
This is also about the right to receive an education. We know that accurate, inclusive education—that both addresses hard histories and talks about the way that those systems currently manifest in society—has been proven to boost the quality of education that all students receive. So, it improves performance and educational experience for Black students, for girls, for transgender students, for nonbinary students, for queer students. But it also benefits cisgender students, white students, and boys—and we have statistical evidence that integrating education in that way (not just in history, but also in math and in literature) does boost performance. It means that students are more likely to attend school, to be engaged, and complete their assignments. And we see that their social and emotional functioning improves, as does their concept of self.
So, accurately teaching history has far-reaching benefits for all children.
KS: Yes, and the risk is that if we decide not to teach these things, if we decide to teach a fake history of this country, then we’re doing a lot of damage to ourselves and our students.
In the first place—students will figure out that we’re lying to them and then they won’t trust us and the other knowledge they’re getting in school. Also, students need to understand the roots of the past in the present, otherwise they won’t ever be able to make sense of, for example, demands for equitable sentencing in criminal cases or demands for equity in health, parity in policing, in incarceration, or even understand problems like hunger and housing access that have their roots in the past.
Overall, what we’re trying to do is build a better democracy, and a democracy requires informed and active citizens. That’s what schools are for, in my mind, and so we take that mission seriously
Before we can challenge systems of racism, sexism, homophobia—we have to understand how they formed and whose interests they serve today. If we don’t have those conversations, and if anti-truth efforts succeed, we risk raising entire generations of students who are not equipped to challenge injustice, who aren’t equipped to participate in a multiracial democracy.
Can you speak a little bit more about the notion that discussing issues of history accurately is too complex or may make students uncomfortable?
KS: Textbooks have changed. They are considerably less likely, now, to shy away from the violence of slavery. They’re more likely to tell stories about lynching and they’re also considerably less likely to say that the Civil War was about “states’ rights,” for example. So I think we’re in a moment where some people are maybe feeling, as the kids say, “some kind of way” about the difference between the textbooks that they read and that students are reading and they’re thinking, well, “history doesn’t change.”
That misunderstands the work of historians, which is to be constantly investigating, turning up more documents, engaging in the study of history and telling new stories that we haven’t told before. And so part of what we’re seeing is an effort to tell stories that haven’t been told before, and I think that there’s some people who are finding that that’s making them uncomfortable.
KM: Also, I’ve been uncomfortable as a Black female student. I’ve been uncomfortable in many, many classes. Uncomfortable when the only time that we talk about people who look like me, it’s about slavery. Uncomfortable when, as a science major, all the scientists that we talked about were men. I was uncomfortable when I had a conversation with my statistics professor where I was trying to figure out why I would do so well on the quizzes, but not the tests, and his answer was, “My test is designed to separate the men from the boys.”
And what I got from that is that it’s not meant for me. I don’t belong here. And I should not be surprised that I don’t do well because he is not surprised that I don’t do well. So there are many students who are already feeling uncomfortable in schools. Those students tend to be students of color. They tend to be students who have a sexuality or gender identity that doesn’t conform to white, heteronormative understanding. They tend to be female students. Those are the students who are uncomfortable. There are lots of ways in which schools are not now safe spaces for women, for people who are not gender-conforming, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
And part of what the changes to the curriculum have been designed to do is to try to create a broader picture of ourselves, so we understand ourselves in relationship to each other. We all start with a shared understanding of who we are and how we are in relationship to each other. Now, if we cannot do that, we are going to continue to allow the students who are currently uncomfortable in school and who are currently being harmed, they’re going to continue to be hurt.
And continue to endure discrimination.
KF: Yes, which is why teaching hard history and having these hard conversations in schools should be celebrated: it’s a buffer to discrimination. We know that when students understand this history, they are less likely to engage in discriminatory harassment. And they’re also more likely to report it when they see it or intervene. That is a very hopeful thing. They feel more connected to one another, and that is a direct contradiction to this narrative we’re hearing that actually these histories make students feel anguish or guilt or discomfort. That’s not borne out by the data. It’s not borne out by what we hear from students. What we hear is that across the board, they feel more supported by their environment and they’re more likely to support each other.
Have teachers observed this?
KM: In my research, I interviewed elementary and high school teachers. And there was not a teacher who said, “my students don’t need this information” or “they don’t want it,” or “they’re too young for it.” But what I have heard is that there are students, particularly white students, in their classes who talk about how much they appreciate having these conversations in school, because they can’t have them with their parents.
They see what’s going on on television and they’ll ask their parents about George Floyd, but their parents don’t want to talk about it, or don’t want to talk about it in the way that they’re curious about. Children are innately curious—that’s a good thing, that’s why we send them to school. They’re not asking to be protected from this information. Students of color can have these conversations for the most part in their families, in their communities. But for white students, for many of them school is maybe the only place where they get to engage these ideas and learn about themselves in their community. It puts them at a disadvantage when they don’t have the privilege of learning that.
If we don’t want students to feel uncomfortable, we would really be rallying behind how we can create a curriculum that reflects the full community and allows us all to be able to learn, live, work, and play together.
Today’s anti-CRT movement epitomizes yet another dangerous and anti-democratic effort to suppress and deny the voices, power, and lived experiences of Black and Brown people in America. Now the target is the truth. Read the first installment of LDF’s series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws.
WAYS TO ENSURE SCHOOLS TEACH THE TRUTH AND EMPOWER STUDENTS
What can people do to support and advance inclusive education and the truthful teaching of history, which are under under attack today?
KF: I think one of the things we want people to keep in mind is that this push [against truth] is not coming from inside of schools and school communities. That’s not to say there aren’t parents at school board meetings who are decrying truthful teaching, but most of this push is coming from national discourse and outside of communities.
And so it’s important that people feel empowered to get involved in their school district and their school board. There are a couple of ways they can do that. The first and I think most important is supporting young people in their school district. We know that there are students across the country who are pushing back on anti-truth efforts. They’re often the first people to say, “Hey, these books actually don’t make us feel guilt or anguish. They allow us to learn. They allow us to better support our peers.” And there are students demanding access to inclusive education and even fighting parents in their own district.
How can we best help these students in their fight against anti-truth efforts?
KF: Students are ready to do that work, but sometimes they need support. Sometimes they may be facing retaliation from school administrators. So I think seeking out the young people in your community and asking how to support them is number one. I think the second is, show up to your school board meeting. And if you’re concerned that this is a place for parents who are really active in the school district, or maybe that you don’t have a child in the school district, but your niece attends the school district, show up. We know that most parents, especially Black parents and other parents of color, actually want inclusive education.
So demonstrating that inclusive education is important—as parents or communities members—is key.
KF: Yes. Many of the vocal critics of inclusive education that are participating in school board meetings, that we’ve seen coverage of, are not even parents in the district. And yet they’re taking up a lot of air at these meetings. So show up, hold your local leaders accountable to the students that they’re serving, and to the parents in their communities.
KM: We need to do much more of what we have tried to do already. The state I live in, New Jersey, has an Amistad Commission that was established in 2002 and outlines why it’s important that every student grows up with a comprehensive understanding of not just what happened in slavery, but its impact in the world today.
I am in conversation with other educators who are looking at how this has actually been translated into the curriculum. Because I don’t think my children, who just graduated, learned that in school, even though it exists on the books. So, part of the work is not just repealing the educational gag orders that have already been laid out, but affirmatively making educational legislation that says it’s important that our curriculum reflects who we are as a nation. And then it’s all in the implementation. Things have to be monitored—just because it’s written down on paper, doesn’t mean it’s actually being translated into reality. That’s one thing we can do in the public policy space.
What about at the classroom level?
KM: Teachers who are teaching for equity are doing this because of a strong commitment that they have to their students. And they are going above and beyond because it is not easy for them to do. We should honor and support and reflect on that work in our support of teachers and educators more broadly.
KS: I think the more we try to constrain teachers the less we are showing our respect for them in our society. We’re not treating them as highly trained professionals, which they are. We’re treating them instead as a vehicle.
And teachers are, of course, critical to ensuring the accurate teaching of history and inclusivity in education.
KS: The Hard History Project has done a couple of projects working with teachers to try to change the way that teachers approach teaching about slavery. So, for example—not starting with a story of victimization, but starting with stories about Africa, the history and culture of people in Africa, and also taking care to center stories of agency, resistance, and resilience among enslaved people. That’s really important because it encourages students to see the humanity of people, and it’s not just a bunch of atrocities. There certainly are countless atrocities, but one of the core beliefs we have is that you can teach about traumatic events without inflicting trauma. And one of the ways that we do that is to flip the script and center the stories of humanity and resilience.
“One of the core beliefs we have is that you can teach about traumatic events without inflicting trauma.”
That’s one of the reasons that we love working with the Freedom On the Move archive. It’s a vast collection of stories of people who, the records that we have of them, are from their enslavers or from their jailers. These “runaway ads” are still telling us about real people who had hopes and dreams and skills and were actively asserting their agency. I think that makes folks relatable. And so I do think there are some ways out of this for us, which is that it is a wake-up call in some ways that we do need to change the way that we’re talking about historical atrocities. To think more about, what is the purpose of this? How is this going to teach us to think? Not just about the past, but the present. And one thing that history education should do, is it should build empathy.
And how can we best support students in the classroom?
KM: We need to give them the opportunity to ask questions safely without being penalized. As I said, kids are curious, they’re born curious, but they learn, “I can’t ask that. I can’t talk about these things.” But school can be that place where students can feel like they can ask the questions they have about understanding themselves, their family, their community, their friends, what they see on television—and know that they’re going to get accurate information and they’re going to be treated with respect.
So many young people are getting information off of social media, where there’s so much disinformation, and we haven’t necessarily taught our students how to think critically. And so they believe things because people who they like have said them. That’s dangerous for them individually, because they aren’t able to make decisions that are most informed. And it’s dangerous for us as a society because what other people think and feel affects us. We want to support our students in making sure that they have places where they can do fact checking, where they can be taught the skills of critical thinking, and where they can be affirmed with whatever questions they ask. Where they can know be told that there is no stupid question, you are a bright, meaningful contributor to our society, and we have a responsibility to support you in your own kind of self-discovery and exploration.
The experts above make clear that students, and our country as a whole, are made better from learning more about each other and the truth of where we are coming from. This plainly debunks the unfounded claims behind state-level measures to suppress conversations promoting diversity and inclusivity in schools—and to whitewash American history by covering up any facts that may cause feelings of “discomfort.” Unvarnished truth has been the precursor to many of our nation’s pivotal incidents of forward progress. Indeed, the horrific scenes of police bludgeoning voting rights advocates on Bloody Sunday, which were broadcast to televisions in living rooms across the nation, helped to finally bring about the realization of those hard-fought civil rights for Black people in America.
Truth and shared understanding about the experiences of all who make up this country are necessary components for the continued march towards becoming a better nation, a more perfect union. Public school education must fully equip the generation who inhabit America today, and who will inherit it tomorrow, to not only chart their own lives, but to trailblaze progress for this country at large. This fight for truth is for them, for us, and for our very nation. We must protect it.
Ishena Robinson, Deputy Editorial Director
Published: February 25, 2022
This is the second installment of an LDF series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here. The third installment examining why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen can be read here.
Suppressing Black History: Past
Clarksdale, Mississippi. February 1973.Jonathon Harris, then-student body president at Clarksdale High School, approached his school’s administrators with a request brought to him by many of his fellow Black students: they wanted a Black history week assembly program at their school.
But Clarksdale’s principal refused the request—and then suspended Harris and several other Black students after they held their own Black history celebration in the school’s gymnasium anyway.
According to the federal complaint filed in 1973 by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) on behalf of Harris and other Black Clarksdale students, the principal allegedly said he was withholding permission for the Black history week assembly because he believed the event would be divisive. “In his view, white students of the school would oppose such a program thereby creating ‘disruption and dissension’ in the student body,” the complaint says.
Disruption did unfold—but it was of the kind that is currently erupting in school boards and state legislatures across the United States, in the form of coordinated local conflicts and policy maneuvers to suppress discussions about racism and race.
Clarksdale’s principal walked into the gym where Black students had gathered and demanded they end the Black history assembly immediately. His order was soon enforced, as every single police officer in the city of Clarksdale arrived to disperse the student gathering, including those who were off-duty—and even the city’s police dog.
The students were cleared out of the gym, and the school slapped them with suspensions. Later, Clarksdale’s nearly all-white Board of Trustees would expel Jonathon Harris.
Although the Supreme Court had formally struck school segregation from the law almost two decades before this event, it would take LDF’s litigation for Harris to be reinstated in school and for annual Black history commemorations to be allowed at Clarksdale High.
Suppressing Black History: Present Day
The concerted effort to impede racial justice in America through Orwellian measures banning, censoring, and otherwise suppressing conversations about race we see metastasizing today are the latest examples of a pattern observable throughout American history.
This is the pattern: whenever there is discernable—or even simply perceived—progress towards full citizenship for Black people in the United States, a virulent backlash ensues. This backlash, which inevitably manifests as the threat or reality of violence, has also frequently been enacted through the law.
Following the massive, multiracial protests for racial justice in 2020, during which droves of Americans not only took to the streets, but also eagerly sought literature to better understand the role of systemic racism in the United States, a mass of legislative measures banning books and limiting conversations about race emerged. This swift, politically-driven backlash to the public’s growing interest in the continuing quest for progress has only increased since the first installment of this series unpacking the phenomenon.
According to an analysis from PEN America, at least 10 states have a truth ban law in effect as of January 2022. Meanwhile, over 100 additional educational gag order bills are, as of this writing, slated for consideration in more than 30 states. Increasingly, the proposed bans seek to impose lawmakers’ restrictions on speech not only in K-12 public classrooms, but also on discussions in higher education institutions, state agencies, business entities that receive state funding or contracts, and even organizations that benefit from state-tax exemptions or have nonprofit status.
The penalties proposed by legislators for violating these censorship edicts continue to escalate, too. Along with the threat of rescinding state funds, truth bans like those proposed in Alaska and Florida would mandate the firing of teachers who discuss prohibited concepts and enable private citizens to sue individuals who they suspect of “wokeness.”
What’s Past Is PresentAs history illustrates time and again, the effort to use the might of the government to silence conversations about the complicated history of the United States is not new. Any high schooler who has learned about McCarthyism and the “red scare” of the 1950s could easily find parallels within their own classrooms today. Indeed, when teachers report feeling “terrified” to teach topics and texts related to race, gender, and systemic racism—when politicians are suggesting that merely discussing these issues is divisive, potentially illegal, and even “unpatriotic”—the echoes of McCarthyism are overwhelming.
In reality, one of the most patriotic acts we can take is to intentionally shape a more perfect union for future generations of Americans. This constant striving to realize our nation’s most cherished ideals—freedom, justice, and equality for all—necessitates a truthful assessment of the lessons of the past. It also means listening to the voices and stories of communities that have historically been sidelined and buried. But the individuals pushing to suppress and sanitize America’s history appear resistant to the idea that a more perfect union can or even should be shaped, especially when it comes to dismantling the racial injustices that remain.
For example, when explaining the impetus behind an anti-Critical Race Theory bill he proposed, Alabama State Representative Ed Oliver said in a recent radio interview, “I always look back at the Civil Rights Act of 1964—that was landmark legislation which you would’ve thought would have created a level playing field for all folks in this country. It apparently wasn’t good enough.”
This invocation of the Civil Rights Act is especially revelatory, given that the hard-won legislation, secured after years of bloody battles and the murder of several of its lead proponents, marks just one of the many efforts to address the systemic oppression of Black people enshrined in the laws of America at its founding—and reinforced afterward. As readers of the New York Times’ popular 1619 Project know, that oppression began with the enslavement of Africans taken to American shores and forced to labor for its enrichment. But the legacy of that most explicit and inhumane manifestation of anti-Black racism in America has resounded across this society since then in various forms—and often most virulently when there are indications that the public tide is moving against the persisting stain of bigotry.
The same playbook followed when the federal government began protecting the constitutional rights of the formerly enslaved in the aftermath of the Civil War and with the passage of the 14th amendment in 1866. The Reconstruction era, though brief, previewed the likelihood of full citizenship for the formerly enslaved in America—an outrageous prospect for those who viewed Black people as inferior. As such, a concerted and deliberate promulgation of racist ideologies and violence to subjugate Black people soon erupted. In the long winter of retrenchment that followed, segregation and anti-Blackness were ruthlessly re-institutionalized through Jim Crow laws that explicitly codified Black Americans to second-class citizenship and remained in place for nearly a century afterward, underscoring how racism that is embedded into societal systems and structures has enduring reach. Moreover, terroristic spates of lynching also unfolded across the nation, minstrelsy and racist caricatures spread exponentially, and the manipulation of educational lessons about race emerged as a key strategy to entrench ideas of white supremacy.
The Manipulation Of EducationIn the South, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) launched a campaign beginning in the early 1900s as part of the backlash to Reconstruction to promote a revisionist telling of the Civil War that downplayed the horrors and evils of slavery, while falsely glorifying the Confederacy as a last redoubt of a supposedly better, pre-industrial age. The UDC flooded public schools in the South with history textbooks written from the deliberately warped and white supremacist perspective that the war was rooted in northern states’ aggression against the economic rights of southern slave owners. Instead of depicting these slaveholders as the eager proponents of racist terror that they were, this narrative suggested they were benevolent to the Black people they dehumanized, brutalized, exploited, assaulted, and killed. The role of Black people’s labor in the South’s flourishing economy was minimized or outright erased in these school texts. The UDC successfully shaped school curricula in service of this narrative, and untold numbers of students were taught well into the 20th century that institutionalized racism was justified.
The formal ending of school segregation in 1954, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, were again events toward racial progress that also resulted in pushback – and this included efforts to impede Black students’ access to quality public education and to limit the inclusion of Black history in public school curricula. Alongside the physical backlash to school integration directed at Black students like Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and LDF clients who had to brave racist mobs to attend newly-desegregated public universities, there were also more subtle efforts to keep Black students out of formerly white-only schools.
In 1972, LDF published a report on the national phenomenon of “Black Student Pushouts,” detailing the alarming racial disparities that were persisting in education, even though segregation had legally ended a decade before. Speaking with a focus group of Black students, administrators, and advocates from across the country, LDF identified that the prevalence of strictly white-oriented curricula contributed to the alarming number of Black students being pushed out of integrated schools. “Courses do not meet the needs of Black students,” the report noted. In cases where Black students vocally advocated for more inclusive curricula, they were swiftly punished like the Black history week student advocates were at Clarksdale High. For example, in Holt v. Tift Board of Education (1972), LDF represented 40 Black students at a newly-integrated rural high school in Georgia who had been suspended and expelled for holding a silent vigil to advocate for Black history lessons.
Knowing This History MattersUnsurprisingly, Georgia, like many other former members of the Confederacy, is among the wave of states today proposing laws to constrain conversations about race in America’s schools. Georgia’s HB88, if passed, would go as far as to prohibit students from talking about public policy in class. Not coincidentally, Georgia has historically been the site of many pivotal events in the multi-generational movement for civil rights, a characteristic it shares with many of the states now considering laws to limit classroom discussions about race. And in the 21st century, Georgia remains a critical piece in understanding the ongoing story of how racism is institutionalized in the United States.
As these many examples illustrate, throughout American history, the law has been repeatedly leveraged to limit Black people’s education and freedom of expression—and it’s a pattern that emerges on the heels of every movement towards racial progress. Today is no different.
What is also unchanged, though, is that the people targeted by this frequently wielded weapon of suppression have just as regularly responded to it with resilience. History shows that Black people – and their allies across races, religions, and gender—have never been effectively silenced. We the people will always put up a robust defense of our rights: to express our voices at the ballot box, to freely tell the stories of our lived experiences and of those who came before us, and to protect the right of everyone to learn the full story of Black people’s indispensable contribution to the continual making of America.
By Ishena Robinson
DEPUTY EDITORIAL DIRECTOR
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
This is the first installment of an LDF series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws. The second installment, which takes a broader historical view, can be read here. The third installment examining why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen can be read here. The fourth installment examining the term and history of “woke” can be read here.
The students stood strong. There were more than two dozen of them: a diverse, multi-racial group of high schoolers reflective of the student population at Central York County High School in York County, Pennsylvania. It was September, and the students were united in their demand that their district’s school board lift the ban it had imposed on a swath of books previously part of the curriculum because some parents had determined them too “divisive.” But the students, who were primarily impacted by the imposition of limits on what they are allowed to read and learn in school, had a different opinion.
“We believe that [it] shows discrimination … for banning 80% of books that are from BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] authors,” Christina Ellis, one of the students who mobilized against the parent-led banning of books that largely reflect the diversity of her peers, told Pennsylvania’s WGAL News.
So, the students pushed back, speaking up at school board meetings and leading demonstrations where they held aloft signs reading “Black History is American History,” and “Equality Belongs in Education.” And they won. The ban was reversed.
Recently, Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic concept taught mostly to law students, has been catapulted into the public dialogue, becoming the catch-all phrase of those seeking to censor educational discussions dealing with race or racial justice in American schools. From the rapid passage of deeply concerning legislation barring the accurate teaching of America’s history in classrooms around the country, threat-laden attacks at school board meetings and against school administrators, and sweeping book bans like the one overturned by the Central York students, the fearmongering around what politically-motivated forces are claiming is CRT has starkly illustrated the ever-shifting weapons being levelled at our multiracial democracy.
Today’s anti-CRT movement epitomizes yet another dangerous and anti-democratic effort to suppress and deny the voices, power, and lived experiences of Black and Brown people in America. Now the target is the truth. The implications of this are already being felt across the country.
What Is Critical Race Theory—And How Is It Being Weaponized To Entrench White Supremacy?
CRT is a decades-old legal academic framework that was first developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ’80s following the civil rights movement. It is essentially an academic response to the erroneous notion that American society and institutions are “colorblind.”
The scholarly framework holds that racism goes far beyond just individually held prejudices, and that it is in fact a systemic phenomenon woven into the laws and institutions of this nation. A cursory review of U.S. history—or even just news headlines from 2020, where far too many examples of police brutality and violence against Black people propelled a historic racial justice movement—proves the truth of this theory. The classroom itself, currently the focal point of the ongoing fight to suppress uncomfortable truths about America, has traditionally been the site of some of this nation’s most egregious acts of state sponsored racism. This includes segregation, which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has been at the forefront of challenging since our founder and the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall successfully litigated Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, 2021 has proven that the ongoing fight against systemic racism is facing a determined pushback. To date, 66 gag orders have been introduced in more than 25 states across the country that effectively put severe restrictions on how American history and issues such as school segregation can be taught or even discussed in classrooms. Many of these measures broadly censor conversations about racism by framing the subject itself as “divisive” and “harmful,” and at least a dozen of these laws have already gone into effect. Even more worryingly, several state legislatures have a staggering and ever-growing number of anti-truth bills already pre-filed for 2022.
Classrooms are again being used as a cudgel to silence the voices and deny the experiences of Black people and other historically marginalized groups in America.
Where Things Stand
Violence And Harassment Targeting School Staff
The politically-motivated push against truthful discussions about America’s history has resulted in profoundly disturbing incidents of targeted harassment, including threats of physical violence, against volunteer school board members, teachers, and other school staff. In several states, school officials have contended with mobs of people ostensibly expressing their rage about “Critical Race Theory” by screaming, yelling, and flashing Nazi symbols at school board members. Some school board members have received death threats. Accomplished educators, advocating for public schools to be more inclusive and responsive to the needs of their diverse school populations, are being systematically terrorized out of their posts.
Where Things Stand
Censorship, Book Bans, And Whitewashing History
The purveyors of today’s war on truth unsurprisingly also have the written word squarely in their crosshairs. They have moved to banning books that provide an honest chronicling of this country’s history. The disturbing proliferation of book bans in the past few months makes clear that the ultimate goal of these “anti-CRT” efforts is to censor, silence, and suppress Americans’ ability to be fully informed about their own country and the lived experiences of their fellow citizens.
In Tennessee, one group has sought to eliminate the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School from the Williamson County Schools’ K-12 curriculum. Written by the now 67-year-old Bridges, the book tells the famous story of six-year-old Bridges braving an angry mob of segregationist parents who were furious that the Black child was attending a formerly all-white public school in New Orleans. The group argues that the book shouldn’t be used in classrooms because the factual story of what happened to Bridges as a child is not sufficiently redemptive of the white people who targeted her.
The same group has also pushed for a Penguin Young Readers text about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington he led for civil rights in 1963, to be removed from the county school curriculum. They claim that the facts about this seminal period in American history and the philosophy of this iconic American civil rights champion will inflict emotional trauma on students.
Other classic works of American literature have been targeted, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about American slavery. In Texas, a legislator recently launched an inquiry into whether any books from an extensive list of 850—most of them titles written by people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other historically marginalized groups — are being used in public schools and potentially running afoul of Texas’ new anti-CRT law. In deference to that very law, which was rushed through a special legislative session this summer, educators in Texas have already been given disturbing guidance that they must present students with “opposing perspectives” on the Holocaust.
Today’s fight for truth is part of that ongoing battle for justice. Without truth, there’s no basis for our demands for justice. And that’s why we must fight fiercely to preserve truth. To preserve history in our public schools and libraries to expand our knowledge of history and facts so another generation does not grow up lamenting what they did not learn in school. What they did not learn about who they are, who we are, and all of the possibilities of what we can become.
Where Things Stand
Silencing Black Voices And Lived Experiences By Quelling Discussion
Restrictions on classroom discussions about race and other so-called “divisive concepts” have also been instituted by lawmakers in Alabama, despite the vocal dissent of parents, educators, and community groups there and testimony from LDF recommending the harmful anti-truth measure be rejected. This year, just after Oklahoma marked the 100th anniversary of the heinous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the state legislature there passed a measure broadly limiting discussions about race in K-12 schools and making it illegal for such discussions to leave students feeling racially-based “discomfort.”
In reality, Oklahoma’s vaguely-worded law already appears to be chilling classroom discourse in ways that will impede students from learning their nation’s true history and developing the critical thinking skills they will need to navigate their futures. Teachers in Oklahoma say they have already been prohibited from using words like “diversity” in their classrooms.
Where Things Stand
A Democracy In Crisis
Honest and accurate discussions about this country’s history, including shared knowledge about its sordid legacy of systemic racism and the accompanying use of fearmongering and political violence to maintain it, are key to building a more informed electorate who can make our democracy work for all Americans. Yet the realization of a truly functioning multiracial democracy, one in which even the most historically marginalized voices have power, is exactly what the ongoing war on truth aims to disrupt.
At risk in the current furor around the honest teaching of history is the right of all students — particularly students of color—to a full, truthful, and accurate education that includes the freedom to have open dialogue about America’s history and the diverse communities that make up this nation.
As historian Timothy Snyder has warned, the censorship of truth, books, and memory is a precursor to eliminating the voice and influence of a people from the governing of their own country. In America, where the current censorship mania has centered specifically on burying the stories and experiences of the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who make up a significant portion of this nation, the aim is to bury those voices in the continual remaking of this country, including at the ballot box, the cornerstone of American democracy.
The threats are real, but they are
not unprecedented, and certainly not unbeatable. One need only think of the Central York high schoolers who stood up for their right to a truthful, inclusive education—and won.
MAGA can't explain what ‘woke’ is, but that's the point—it's a ‘choose your own bigotry’ term for Republicans
Editor’s note: I was struggling to write a blog post about the rise of “woke” and having a difficult time. Luckily, I came across this excellent article by the always-insightful Amanda Marcotte at Salon.com. I hope you find this article as valuable as I do.
MARCH 16, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)
“Woke” is currently the favorite word of the right. Republican politicians can’t go more that 5 or 6 words without peppering “woke” into their sentences. Turning on Fox News, you’ll hear the word “woke” repeated ad nauseam, like a record skipping, but for hours at a time: “woke woke woke woke woke.” Everything is “woke”: Banks. Children’s books. The military. Disney. M&Ms. Super Bowl performances. To be a Republican in the year 2023 is to spend every waking moment outraged and terrified by “woke,” certain its wokey tendrils will snake their wokeness into your brain and woke-ify you into wokeitude.
But the funny thing about “woke” is that, while all Republicans hate it, they don’t seem to have any idea how to define it. That was hilariously demonstrated in a viral video clip of conservative author Bethany Mandel falling completely apart when asked in an interview to define “woke,” a concept she wrote an entire book denouncing. Mandel couldn’t do it.
“So, I mean, woke is sort of the idea that, um...” she stammered before admitting it “is something that’s very hard to define,” and then failing utterly to get close.
Mind you, Mandel was not being cornered by some progressive journalist. She was on a reactionary show with two sympathetic hosts who bent over backward to give Mandel room to explain what “woke” meant, coaxing her gently with, “take your time.” Yet she still couldn’t define “woke.”
This made a lot of people laugh, as it should. But make no mistake: The inability to define “woke” is a feature, not a bug. “Woke” is very much meant to be a word that cannot be pinned to a definition. Its emptiness is what gives it so much power as a propaganda term. “Woke” is both everything and nothing. It can mean whatever you need it to mean, and you can deny that it means what it obviously means. The ephemerality of “woke” is what makes it so valuable. “Woke” morphs into being when a right-winger needs to feel outrage and evaporates into thin air should anyone try to ask a rational question about it.
Mind you, that wasn’t always the case with “woke.”
It wasn’t so long ago that “woke” was a slang term from Black America, and it meant something substantive and easy to define. To be “woke” was to refuse to be complacent about social injustice. This definition offended Republicans, whose very existence depends on complacency in the face of social injustice. So as an act of very racist revenge, they appropriated the term “woke,” turning it into a catch-all insult for anything that annoys them.
In right-wing mouths, the term “woke” is very slippery, which is necessary for people who both want to be bigots but don’t want to be called out for it. Labeling someone or something “woke” allows Republicans to live in a liminal space, communicating a vile belief to their fellow travelers while maintaining that’s not what they meant at all.
For instance, imagine you’re a trollish Republican congresswoman from Georgia, and you want to commiserate with your followers about how aggravated you are that they let Black people perform songs at the Super Bowl. In your grandparents’ era, this would be expressed by muttering racial slurs to your friends over chicken wings during halftime. Now, however, that gets you called “racist.” So instead you just tweet that every performance not from a white guy was “woke.”
The beauty of “woke” here is how vague it is. If your critics call you “racist,” you simply say you aren’t mad at Rihanna and Sheryl Lee Ralph because they’re Black. You can say it’s just that they have an ineffable “woke” vibe that offends you. In the grand tradition of victim-blaming, Greene shifts responsibility to Rihanna and Ralph to somehow be less “woke.” But of course, that’s an impossible target to hit, even if they wanted to. (Outside of disappearing entirely, naturally.) Greene declines to explain what makes them so “woke,” if it’s not their skin color that so offends her.
Or say you’re the pinch-mouthed Republican governor of Florida and you want to terrorize LGBTQ people back into the closet. Banning homosexuality, at least for now, is out from a legal standpoint. Plus, being proudly prejudiced against people based on sexual orientation is politically unpopular. So instead you redefine any behavior that offends you — being out of the closet, publicly supporting LGBTQ rights, writing a book about two male penguins in love — as “woke.” Now you can crush human liberty while pretending to merely hold the line against this elusive threat of “woke.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., is particularly keen on how the indescribable nature of “woke” makes it a perfect word for his favorite political ploy: gaslighting. For instance, DeSantis signed a law he bragged would keep “woke” books from schools. Of course, no one actually knows what “woke” means, so some teachers stripped their libraries bare to avoid a kid reading something someone else might call “woke.” Now DeSantis is pretending that he’s being misunderstood and that his book ban was narrow instead of broad.
“Woke,” you see, expands and contracts depending upon the momentary needs of authoritarian figures like DeSantis. When teachers are stocking shelves, “woke” is a massive category, covering thousands of books, to the point where it’s easier not to let kids read at all. But when deflecting criticism, “woke” is minuscule, covering almost no books at all. The brilliance of “woke” is that it is Schrödinger’s cat as a political concept. A book is both “woke” and “un-woke,” depending on the moment. In the classroom, the book is “woke” and forbidden. Outside, when speaking to reporters, it’s not “woke.” Indeed, the victims are blamed for misreading “woke,” probably because they are too “woke,” but of course, they will never actually be told what it would take to not be “woke.”
This is hardly the first time that Republicans have latched onto deliberately amorphous terms to convey a sense of outrage while evading responsibility to define what exactly the hell they are on about. “Marxism,” “socialism,” “political correctness,” “demonic,” “sexualization”: The world of right-wing propaganda is rife with terms that have been appropriated and rendered meaningless, allowing conservatives to apply them to everything. A Republican loves an empty signifier. Specificity invites rational discourse. And rationality is the death of reactionary politics.
The near-infinite flexibility of “woke” as a concept is why it was so useful to Republicans trying to deflect attention from their role in deregulating banks, which likely contributed to the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). To charge “wokeness” for the bank’s collapse allows Republicans to both pin the blame on women and people of color while claiming they are doing no such thing. This became comically obvious in the Wall Street Journal article by Andy Kessler, in which he noted that SVB board is “45 percent women, they also have ‘1 Black,’ ‘1 LGBTQ+,’“ and while, “I’m not saying 12 white men would have avoided this mess, but the company may have been distracted by diversity demands.”
One longs for old school bigotry, which is at least a little clearer in its arguments. You can hear Kessler’s yearning to say women aren’t smart enough to be bankers. But he can’t say that in 2023. Instead, the board is “woke.” It’s not that women are inherently “woke,” but you can tell the board is “woke” because of the women. He’s not saying only men are smart enough to be bankers, but you know, that people who disagree with that position are “woke.”
“Anti-woke” is the catch-all term for all the things Republicans wish they could say but can’t. You know what they mean, though, but of course, they will never admit it.
This cartoon was originally published February 23, 2023 but I only just read it when it was reprinted in The Funny Times. If you're looking for a lot of laughs delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.
Remembered fondly by women who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, but still relevant today, the US tween writer’s best-loved heroine is about to hit the big screen
Sun 9 Apr 2023 09.00 EDT
“It felt like she was writing for me.” It is a sentiment I hear over and over again, talking to women in their 40s and 50s about the American writer Judy Blume, one of the world’s bestselling authors, who started writing young adult fiction in the 1970s, when that genre was still in its infancy.
As a 12-year-old growing up in Bath, my Judy moment, discovering her novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, due to be released as a film in the UK on 19 May, was revelatory. There I was, in the stonewashed denim jacket and matching jeans that my mum had bought me from C&A, feeling like the only girl in school who might never grow a decent pair of boobs or start her periods. (At 46, I’m still waiting for the boobs.) Then along came Margaret. Never mind that she was living more than a decade earlier, when they used alarming-sounding contraptions called sanitary belts; she was feeling the same anxieties, and everything she felt was right there on the page.
“I loved her immediately and for ever because she was writing about what it was really like to be a girl, worrying about bras, periods and crushes,” says the novelist Emily Barr.
Until she “found Judy”, Barr had been existing on a diet of Malory Towers, Enid Blyton’s wholesome boarding school novels. “Those girls did get older but they basically stayed like children,” she says. “Daryl Rivers definitely didn’t ever have a period.” Then Barr found Margaret and her friends, chanting “I must, I must improve my bust” in the hope they would grow to fill their new bras, and everything changed.
“Not only did these new girls have periods, they agonised about it,” Barr says. “It was trailblazing.”
When Barr started writing young adult fiction herself, she says the most common feedback from her editor was to “let the reader in” a bit more. “With [this genre] you really need to get into the inner life of the character,” she explains. “I still think about Judy when I’m doing that.”
Blume, whose 29 books have sold almost 90 million copies, has never faded away, but right now, at the age of 85, she is having something of a renaissance. As well as the movie, in cinemas next month Amazon Prime is releasing Judy Blume Forever, a documentary exploring the writer’s own journey from “fearful imaginative child to storytelling pioneer”.
Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok also focus on her fight against censorship, with her books still banned in schools and libraries in some US states for daring to talk about puberty and sex.
All the grown-up Judy fans I speak to are quick to say they will be watching what they call “The Margaret Movie”. “Oh my God, I’ll be there on the first day!” Barr enthuses. But I wonder whether the cinema will be entirely full of women of a similar age to me, reliving their adolescent angst in the dark and feeling relieved they can laugh about it all now. Will today’s tweens see the appeal?
Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, is adamant that these books are “timeless”. Finding Blume at the age of 11, before which she admits she was “basically allergic to books”, she felt the author had a “direct line to all of my private thoughts and feelings”.
It was a huge relief, she recalls. “I so very much appreciated the way she told the truth about adolescence and didn’t hold back on the details”. She argues that some of those details may be very different now – but the feelings are still the same.
Young adult novelist Lisa Williamson read all Blume’s books in her youth, and loved the fact that “there was no pretence; they felt utterly real”. Williamson’s first novel, The Art of Being Normal, was widely praised for its sensitive portrayal of life as a transgender teenager, and she says rereading Blume’s books is “a nice reminder of how far we’ve moved on, that young queer people can easily find images of themselves in books”.
Yet she agrees with Fremon Craig that some aspects of young people’s inner lives don’t change. “I think it’s a misconception that they are maturing faster now. Yes, a lot of people might be getting their period and going through puberty earlier, but I don’t think emotions are changing.”
Michael Reiss, professor of science education at University College London, says Blume’s books filled a vacuum in the 70s and 80s: although young people were taught about the factual, biological aspects of periods, puberty and sex, “what you didn’t get was setting it in any sort of personal context”.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, teenage boys would eventually pluck up the courage to buy a copy of Playboy and pass it round,” he adds. “Now the majority of young teenagers will have seen some really unpleasant porn images.”
Helen McGarry, who is in her 40s and works on the school improvement team of an academy trust, remembers how mortified she was when the local librarian asked her “quite prudish” mother to give permission for her to take out Forever. This is Blume’s 1975 novel about a young couple having sex for the first time, and her legions of older fans vividly remember it being passed around under desk lids when they were growing up. Many also admit they still snigger when they hear the name Ralph, which was what Michael, the lead character, had christened his penis.
“My mum picked up the book and started flicking through it and seeing all these passages and she was wide-eyed,” she says. “In the end she said: ‘Well, as long as you’re sensible with it.’ We never mentioned it again.”
My 12-year-old daughter, Iris, has been deluged with lessons on puberty, periods and sex since starting secondary school. She initially raised an eyebrow when I bought her a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, utterly baffled that anybody would choose to write to God about breasts and periods. But when she saw that God wasn’t really the point, she was hooked.
I tell her that sex education was a very different and patchy thing when I was young, and that very few people discussed this stuff with their mums. I ask her whether all her sex and social education lessons mean that she doesn’t need books in the same way that we did. She looks at me in surprise. “Of course not,” she says. “We might be learning about it, but nobody discusses it. I don’t really talk about periods or bras with my friends.”
Apparently, even now, it’s rather nice to open a book and suddenly feel understood.
Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries have passages edited by sensitivity readers for latest HarperCollins editions
March 26, 2023
Several Agatha Christie novels have been edited to remove potentially offensive language, including insults and references to ethnicity.
Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries written between 1920 and 1976 have had passages reworked or removed in new editions published by HarperCollins to strip them of language and descriptions that modern audiences find offensive, especially those involving the characters Christie’s protagonists encounter outside the UK.
Sensitivity readers had made the edits, which were evident in digital versions of the new editions, including the entire Miss Marple run and selected Poirot novels set to be released or that have been released since 2020, the Telegraph reported.
The updates follow edits made to books by Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming to remove offensive references to gender and race in a bid to preserve their relevance to modern readers.
The newspaper reported that the edits cut references to ethnicity, such as describing a character as black, Jewish or Gypsy, or a female character’s torso as “of black marble” and a judge’s “Indian temper”, and removed terms such as “Oriental” and the N-word. The word “natives” has also been replaced with the word “local”.
Among the examples of changes cited by the Telegraph is the 1937 Poirot novel Death on the Nile, in which the character of Mrs Allerton complains that a group of children are pestering her, saying that “they come back and stare, and stare, and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children”.
This has been stripped down in a new edition to state: “They come back and stare, and stare. And I don’t believe I really like children.”
In the new edition of the 1964 Miss Marple novel A Caribbean Mystery, the amateur detective’s musing that a hotel worker smiling at her has “such lovely white teeth” has been removed, the newspaper added.
Sensitivity readers are a comparatively recent phenomenon in publishing that have gained widespread attention in the past two years. They vet both new publications and older works for potentially offensive language and descriptions, and aim to improve diversity in the publishing industry – though some are paid extremely low wages.
Though this is not the first time the content of Christie’s novels has been changed, her 1939 novel And Then There Were None was previously published under a different title that included a racist term, which was last published under that name in 1977, and included this word repeatedly in the story.
Agatha Christie Limited, a company run by the author’s great-grandson James Prichard, is understood to handle licensing for her literary and film rights. The company and HarperCollins have been contacted for comment.
Other midcentury authors whose works have been revisedRoald Dahl
Dahl’s publisher, Puffin, hired sensitivity readers to rewrite substantial parts of the author’s text to make sure the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”; however, it will also continue to print the original editions.
On the chopping block were offensive descriptions of characters’ physical appearances, such as the words “fat” and “ugly”, as well as antisemitic references, for instance to the characters’ big noses in The Witches.
Gender-neutral terms were also added – where Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas were “small men”, they are now “small people”. The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People.
To mark 70 years since Casino Royale, Fleming’s first book featuring the British spy James Bond, was published, a full set of the thrillers will be reissued. This time, they will contain the disclaimer: “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace.”
Many changes are to remove racist language. In Live and Let Die, Bond’s comment that would-be African criminals in the gold and diamond trades are “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they’ve drunk too much” has been changed to “pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought”.
Others are to remove sexist language; for example a scene where Bond visits a nightclub in Harlem, and a reference to the “audience panting and grunting like pigs at the trough” has been changed to “Bond could sense the electric tension in the room”.
This article was amended on 28 March 2023. An earlier version said that this was the first time that the content of Agatha Christie’s novels had been changed, but the content of And Then There Were None had been edited to remove offensive words.
March 2, 2022
Back in the days when everything took place on Zooms and Teams, I was part of a World Book Day event that was livestreamed from the set of the hit musical Matilda. The set is magical: a child’s swing with an explosion of books fire-working up behind it. Now, of course, Matilda has become a battlefield in the Roald Dahl chapter of our culture wars.
It is worth noting that World Book Day has always been a battlefield. Every year teachers, carers and librarians defend the joy of reading from the forces of darkness. Almost as soon as someone suggested dressing up might be fun, predator supermarkets caught the scent of anxiety on the hurrying bodies of young parents and pounced, selling them bundles of single-use Where’s Wally costumes. But schools pushed back and now instead of parades of children dressed in expensive landfill, you’ll find schools where the pupils come dressed in their pyjamas and cosy up to listen to stories, making the day into one long dreamy sleepover. I’ve been to schools where, instead of parents or carers dressing up children, children are invited to dress wooden spoons, or their classroom door. Another where the teachers sat in their classrooms reading their favourite stories and the kids could chose which one to go and listen to. There are whole school book swaps. And “home and away” reading, where children from one class go and read to another. More ideas every year.
Until the next enemy took the field. The pandemic. Then again schools rose to the challenge with online readings, and livestream events such as the Matilda one. Thameside primary in Caversham encouraged people to put book covers in their windows to make a trail around the area. I especially loved “Masked Reader” moments, when teachers disguised themselves with filters while reading favourite stories.
‘You can always move on to Narnia’ . . . The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Photograph: Phil Bray/Ronald GrantThis year, Leslie Manser school in Lincoln is making a food bank collection part of its World Book Day celebration because the latest threat to the fun is the cost of living crisis. I really hope that – apart from spreading light and magic – World Book Day throws some light on the impact this the crisis has on children. With money short, parents and carers are buying fewer books for their children. For previous generations this wouldn’t have mattered so much because they had libraries. Nowadays, one in seven primary schools don’t have anything resembling a library. Prisons are obliged to have libraries by law. Schools are not. The outgoing children’s laureate Cressida Cowell has spent the last few years fighting for her Life-changing Libraries campaign. It’s making a huge difference but it would have a been a lot easier if our media showed a fraction of the interest they showed in Roald Dahl’s vocabulary in our children. Sometimes advocating for children in this country feels like a niche enthusiasm instead of the future of the nation.
Of course I know there are important issues behind the Dahl row. But whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of sensitivity reading, surely it’s equally important that all our children have access to a couple of shelves of books and a corner to read them in. The key to reading for pleasure is having a choice about what you read. As a child I disliked Dahl intensely. I felt that his snobbery was directed at people like me and that his addiction to revenge was not good. But that was fine – I just moved along to Joan Aiken, Moominland and Narnia. Today publishers such as Knights Of, writers such as Nadia Shireen, Elle McNicoll, Katherine Rundell, Phil Earle, Lissa Evans Onjali Q Raúf and Alice Oseman are pumping out masterpieces that would suit any sensitivity or none. I name the names – as Philip Pullman did when he was asked the question – because they don’t crop up enough in the national conversation. Tireless, heroic teachers will be doing that today (or tomorrow, perhaps). Children need to be pointed towards these books and they should be available in schools.
Now that I’m grown up I can see that there are moments of real genius in Matilda. That first encounter with Trunchbull when – without having even seen her – she convinces herself that Matilda is the root of all her problems and whips herself into a fury about it, is both terrifying and prophetic. I think we’ve all learned what that combination of stupidity, power and vindictiveness leads to. But there’s still something about that book that niggles me. Matilda makes herself: she’s clever because she’s clever. This is something Dahl believed about himself. His breakthrough piece – Shot Down Over Libya – is the story of how he saved himself when he crashed his plane in the desert. Except he didn’t. He was saved by his co-pilot, whom Dahl wrote out of the picture.
The truth is, none of us saves ourselves. We save each other. Or not. World Book Day is a chance to celebrate the power and pleasure of reading, to help our children build the apparatus of happiness within themselves. It should also be a day to ask ourselves whether we are doing right by our children, by our future. Because, to quote the smash hit musical Matilda: “If you sit around and let them get on top, you / Might as well be saying you think that it’s OK / And that’s not right.”
February 20, 2023
Novelist Salman Rushdie led condemnations Monday of Roald Dahl’s children’s books being re-edited for a modern audience, calling it “absurd censorship” by “bowdlerising sensitivity police.”
Publishers Puffin have made hundreds of reported changes to characters and language in Dahl’s stories including making the diminutive Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gender neutral and calling Augustus Gloop enormous rather than fat.
Mrs. Twit in The Twits is also no longer ugly, but beastly instead, while the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach are now “Cloud-People.”
The criticism comes amid a growing trend for publishers to employ so-called “sensitivity readers” who work alongside editors to identify references to gender, race, weight, violence or mental health that might offend readers.
A spokesperson for the Netflix-owned Roald Dahl Story Company, which controls the rights to the books, said it was not unusual for publishers “to review the language used” for new print runs and that its guiding principle had been to try to maintain the “irreverence and sharp-edged spirit of the original text.”
But the edits sparked a wave of criticism.
Rushdie, who lived in hiding for years due to a fatwa calling for his death over his 1988 book The Satanic Verses, said Dahl had been a “self confessed anti-Semite, with pronounced racist leanings, and he joined in the attack on me back in 1989.
“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship. Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed,” he wrote on Twitter.
Dahl’s books have sold over 250 million copies worldwide.
Some of his most popular stories have been turned into blockbuster films such as last year's “Matilda the Musical” and “The BFG” (2016) which was directed by Steven Spielberg.
‘Nasty, colorful glory’Suzanne Nossel, head of freedom of expression body PEN America, said she was “alarmed” by the edits.
“Amidst fierce battles against book bans and strictures on what can be taught and read, selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities could represent a dangerous new weapon.
“Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.”
Nossel said one of the problems with re-editing works was that “by setting out to remove any reference that might cause offense you dilute the power of storytelling.”
“His Dark Materials” author Philip Pullman took aim at the influence of sensitivity readers on young authors.
He said less established writers found it “hard to resist the nudging towards saying this or not saying that.
“If Dahl offends us, let him go out of print,” he told BBC radio adding that millions of Dahl books with the original text would remain in circulation for many years whatever the changes to new editions.
Others highlighted how the “nasty” elements of Dahl’s stories were exactly what made them popular with children.
Laura Hackett, deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times newspaper, called the changes “botched surgery” and vowed on Twitter to hold on to her original copies so her children could “enjoy them in their full, nasty, colorful glory.”
Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak weighed in on the debate.
“The Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that you shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words,” his spokesperson told reporters.
The expression—meaning to play around—is a reference to a line spoken by the big friendly giant in the book.
We are including these tidbits as blog posts so that they are searchable. They do not relate specifically to book banning efforts, but they do seem relevant to issues of censorship and the misguided attempts to limit access to books that children want to read.