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Howard University hosts banned book authors to discuss censorship

‘All the rest of us will pay for the stories you are too afraid to tell,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the audience at International Black Writers Festival

Howard University’s annual International Black Writers Festival hosted African-American authors who have faced bans on their books about the history of Black America and racism to speak about the opposition to their writings.

Authors Mikki Kendall and Ibram X. Kendi joined Howard professors Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to discuss why books that tell the history of Black America are needed by people in and outside the Black community. The discussion filled Howard’s School of Social Work and advanced Banned Books Week, which began Sunday and ends Saturday.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the writing that surprises Black folks, but maybe they [non-Black writers] don’t have language for it. And that’s our job … to put language to what they already know,” Coates said.  

In February, Chapin High School in South Carolina barred English teacher Mary Wood from assigning Coates’ book Between the World and Me in her Advanced Placement class after two students complained to the Lexington-Richland School District 5 school board that the book made them feel ashamed to be white. According to The Associated Press, school district records indicate officials worried Wood’s lesson, which also included two videos on systemic racism, potentially violated a rule in South Carolina’s budget banning schools from using state money to teach lessons that made anyone feel discomfort, guilt or anguish based on their race.

In July, Coates attended a Lexington-Richland 5 school board meeting to support Wood.

“I had this strong ‘say it to my face’ [attitude]. Then I realized that actually wasn’t helpful because I wasn’t the one in trouble. This white woman [Wood] was going to lose her job,” Coates said during the panel discussion. “I called her before I went down there [and asked], ‘What are you going to do? They’re threatening your job.’ She said, ‘I’m going to teach the lesson.’ ”

Coates said he realized more was at stake during the school board meeting than his book.

“White supremacy is a minoritarian impulse. It does not seek to just patrol us [Black people], it actually seeks to patrol white people, too,” Coates said. “What I saw was white people fighting white people. I was not the one on the line. The students were going to be deprived of an AP language education and end up getting a canned curriculum. … As much as this banning is about us, it’s about them, too.”

Panel moderator Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said although resistance to literature isn’t new, the current opposition feels especially ominous.

“Books have always been seen as dangerous, but this moment feels particularly insidious,” Greer said. “I don’t know if I’m just being histrionic or if we’re in a unique moment in American history.”

Kendi, co-author of Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, which a North Carolina school district banned in September, reminded the audience of abolitionist David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, explaining Walker would stitch the anti-slavery pamphlet into the clothes of sailors and ask them to spread it in the South.

“I’m mentioning this because as the decades moved along, up until the Civil War, there was more and more abolitionist literature. The more abolitionist literature there was, the more there were efforts of enslavers to ban books,” Kendi said. “So, the original book banners in this country were enslavers and they were, of course, trying to prevent the truth about the beauty and excellence of Black people from coming to light.

“I see a similar iteration happening today with those of us who are serious about abolishing racism – our books are being banned.”

Kendall, the author of Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot, said America has a long history of attempting to separate people from books. Hood Feminism was banned from Texas school libraries in 2021. 

“Books have always had so much power that America tried to prevent people from ever being able to read them legally. … We are in a moment where America is backsliding,” Kendall said. “She [America] is choosing once again to tap-dance around the possibility that a nation founded on genocide and slavery and oppression can only become wealthy if we make sure that the populace is uneducated, that the populace has no way to know their rights or to be able to question what is happening to them.”

Regardless, Kendall remains optimistic that censorship efforts driven by racism ultimately will fall short.

“Obviously, they’re [white supremacists] going to fail. They have failed every time. We will defeat them again. But that does mean we have to be willing to stand in the shoes of our ancestors who fought to be able to read and fight for every book to be available,” said Kendall, who noted her grandmother was the first person in her family legally allowed to read.

In 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7, also known as the Stop WOKE Act, which prohibits critical race theory from being taught in Florida public schools. The law prompted bans on several books, including Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project, which DeSantis publicly condemned.

When asked to explain why she thought society needed to learn about the type of history her work explores, Hannah-Jones said, “At its core, The 1619 Project was the answer to my own lifelong quest to understand why the history we were taught did not explain the country we lived in.”

Taking a Black studies elective taught by a Black man in high school left a lasting impression, Hannah-Jones added.

“I didn’t grow up with Black literature. I didn’t grow up with Black history. I take this one class and suddenly I realize, oh, we actually do have a history that can be taught,” Hannah-Jones said. “The fact that they’re not teaching this isn’t because we haven’t done anything. People have chosen not to teach us these things and not to introduce us to this literature.”

Restrictions have kept some students from reading classic books by Black authors such as Alice Walker (The Color Purple), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye) and Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Panelists stressed that fear is not an option while Black literature is under threat.

“We cannot afford your cowardice,” Coates said. “All the rest of us will pay for the stories you are too afraid to tell.”

Takier George, a 2024 Rhoden Fellow and native of Arlington, Virginia, is a senior majoring in English with a minor in television and film. Takier enjoys writing poems and has had her work published in The Amistad, Howard University's literary arts journal, and The Hilltop, Howard's student newspaper. She is also editor-in-chief of the Sterling Notes Literary Journal.