On banned books, & how maybe it’s okay (even a good sign?) for our kids to feel bad sometimes
“It is a real chill out / the genuine thing..” — Gwendolyn Brooks
Oh Autumn, how I love you. I can’t help but imagine writers of my favorite fall poems in a cage fight against one another. Scrappy little poet Gwendolyn Brooks puts stuffy Gerard Manley Hopkins in a headlock, while Edna St. Vincent Millay saunters onto the scene, taps the ash from her cigarette and jumps into the fray. The three of them have so many beautiful, achey lines in common, so much rich earth and golden slant of sun, intimations of decay and mortality at the edges. I love them all, (see their poetry below).
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A Tale of Three Classrooms
I’ve been reading about the books that are no longer allowed in various libraries, classrooms and schools across these United States, and there’s a story out of South Carolina that’s been haunting me.
- For some years, an AP English teacher there named Mary Wood has taught Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, in her advanced English class. Written as a letter to his son, in the style of James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time, the book is an epistolary cautionary tale about the precarity and inherent risk of coming of age as a young Black person in the United States. Coates shares stories of his early encounters with racism, of the death of his friend Prince at the hands of a police officer, and his growing realization of the ways fear has corroded and shaped his life. What comes through is a father conflicted about how much reality to offer his young son, and how much hope. He writes:
I did not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness. I resolved to hide nothing from you.
Wood asked her students to read the book, watch a couple of videos on systemic racism and then discuss whether they agreed or disagreed with Coates’ premise. Past students said while they didn’t always agree with Wood or other classmates, they admitted that a high level of engagement and healthy debate take place in her classroom. This fall, partway through Coates’ book, two of Mary Wood’s students reported her to the school board for apparently making them feel guilty or uncomfortable for being white. The administration ordered her to stop teaching the lesson immediately – her colleagues from the English department helped collect the books from students, and she had to announce that they wouldn’t be reading it anymore.
- One day, when my daughter Sylvie was in the first grade, she came home from her elementary school full of indignation. Her school was very diverse, with something like 20 different languages represented, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a girl wearing a hijab run past kicking a soccer ball on the playground, or a mother selling tamales to raise funds for the PTA.
“Have you heard about the lunch counters?!” she asked. “Did you know some people couldn’t sit and eat a sandwich because they had black skin?”
I did know about it, I told her.
“That’s just crazy,” she said, and began to count on her fingers the names of friends that would not be allowed to sit with her at the counter. It simply blew her seven-year-old mind that people would do that to one another.
Here’s one more classroom story, before I wind this up:
- For the past twenty years I’ve worked as a visiting writer for Literary Arts, leading writing residencies in high schools around Portland. Though I had some difficult assignments sometimes, I never failed to appreciate what a plum gig it was. It was a known fact that visiting writers got to be sort of the “fun auntie,” parachuting into the classroom once or twice a week with writing prompts and then leaving when it was time for the teacher to lead the academic equivalent of brushing teeth or eating vegetables. But one spring at an alternative school where I taught for 8 years, I wanted to try a lesson that made me nervous to teach, as a white woman in a classroom of diverse students. I’d learned it from the author Renée Watson, a native Portlander who had taught with us before moving to New York City, when she offered a professional development workshop for Literary Arts. Watson demonstrated a lesson she used to show students how writers can use their work to push back at injustice. Using short news accounts of the deaths of unarmed Black men, Watson asked students to pull lines of text and shape the words into their own poems. When a fellow white teacher had expressed trepidation at taking on the subject matter, Watson told us that yeah, of course it was uncomfortable. But she said she did her best to be honest with her students when she felt nervous, inviting them to enter into a space where it was safe to feel a range of emotions and to engage through the discomfort. She encouraged us to do the same.
I introduced the lesson to my students on a Thursday in late March of 2015 and asked them to do a free-write to set down all the things that they had in their heads about the subject of policing in America and the deaths of unarmed Black men. A number of students wrote about experiences being profiled or harassed by police in Portland, and others wrote about the injustices they saw their friends experience. One young man wrote a grumbly piece about how all lives mattered and what about police and the dangerous job they had to do? My heart sank that weekend as I read through the responses – it was a lot of different perspectives and experiences to hold in the same room, and it seemed to me the risk of causing further harm to students was real. I knew that those students without personal experience with the subject were more susceptible to being products of what they heard at their dinner tables, or parroting whatever they’d heard filtering from a television in the background. But the next class went better than I’d thought it would: It was as though students had blown off initial steam in their free-write exercise and by setting their thoughts down on the page first, they came willing to articulate their views, and to listen closely to one another.
Something else was happening in the background: On April 2nd, it was the death of Eric Harris, shot in the back by an officer who mistook his gun for a taser. The following weekend, it was Walter Scott, shot in the back 5 times after being stopped for a broken tail light. Students came in to class shaking their heads: Are you watching this? Whatever appetite a student in that classroom might have had for debating whether the United States actually had a police brutality problem, it died for good the following week when Freddie Gray died in Baltimore, while in police custody. It wasn’t that these deaths hadn’t been happening all along (2014 was Eric Garner/Michael Brown/Tamir Rice, among others), but that month the deaths piled up. By making a space inside the classroom to grapple with it, watching what was happening in real time and talking about it, we could hold it all together. We could try our damnedest to use art to push back at the horror, even as the news came faster than we could try to render poems from it. We were paying attention and we were doing it together. That felt like something.
And this is what I think about when I reflect on the banning of Coates’ book in that classroom in South Carolina. I think of the students who had made notes in the margins of his book, and how they must have felt to hand it over as it went back on the shelf—like a defeat. I think about Sylvie coming home so righteously pissed on behalf of her friends. She was in it, seeing injustice up close and rejecting it. Coates tells his son, “What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.” Isn’t that what we should want for our children, and for the students of classrooms in America? That we can grow into awareness by looking clear-eyed at the worst of what people in the past have done to one another, and then decide collectively that we won’t repeat it? When we allow ourselves to be curious about the ways we may have benefited from the structures in place in this country, while others have been imperiled, we can be part of dismantling the systems that oppress and cause harm. It’s what I want for my own kids, that they know the history of their country, even the parts with dark horror—I trust they’ll have the appropriate response to it, which is to feel sad and disgusted. And then I hope they’ll join together with their friends and classmates to prevent the same injustices from being enacted ever again.
And what of the student who wrote in his free-write that all lives mattered? In the end, that sentiment showed up only in that first writing. For his final poem he chose to write from the perspective of one of the fifty bullets that riddled the car of Sean Bell, an unarmed Black man killed by police in 2006, the morning before he was to be married. Inside the classroom, my student found a space to set down the perspective he’d come in with, step back and study it from a distance. By the time he picked it back up and walked out into the world, it was different.
Truth: Using the epistolary style of Coates and Baldwin, write a letter to a child/student/person about your experience growing up in your skin, in your country, and write about the hopes you have for their futures/lives
Dare: Find a book/essay/author that has been banned in a town somewhere across the States – track it down and read it
Double Dog Dare: Tell someone else about your banned selection and get them a copy
If you live in Portland, or near enough, visit the Black Artists of Oregon exhibition at the Portland Art Museum curated by artist Intisar Abioto. The amazing paintings in this newsletter are installed there.
p.s. Thanks to those of you who read this far, which, if it’s just you, Mom, hi and thanks! I started this newsletter at the beginning of October, before the harrowing events in Israel and Gaza began to unfold. I’m sending my whole heart there to the humans and animals who are suffering and dying. Hoping for the cessation of bombs falling and for plenty of water and food for everybody, and safe places to sleep. Also hoping that if you’ve been ingesting a steady stream of news, that you’ll look away and go outside under the sky, take some deep breaths and look for a bird out there. Sending love and solidarity and thank you for reading this. —LM
8 In order to do this, it helps to know one another, to have access to each other, so it’s discouraging to see how segregated the US is, all these years since Brown vs Board of Education. The incredible Nikole Hannah-Jones breaks it down here