Jonathan Zimmerman: Do we really want discussion in our schools? Book censorship indicates otherwise
Do you believe in discussion in our schools? Or do you want the schools to discuss just what you believe?
That’s the big question that all Americans need to ask themselves right now. And everything — really, everything — hinges on the answer.
Witness two recent news stories, both involving book censorship. In Florida, state officials worked with the publisher of a middle school social studies textbook to remove a passage about Black Lives Matter. A second publisher asked the author of a children’s book on the Japanese American internment to revise her author’s note about racism.
We don’t know why Florida objected to the BLM passage, which noted that “many Americans sympathized with the Black Lives Matter movement” while other people criticized looting and violence and denounced BLM as anti-police. But here’s what we do know: The book provided multiple perspectives on BLM, which is exactly what our students need in order to make sense of it themselves.
Florida officials already rejected a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it addressed Black Lives Matter, as well as reparations and prison abolition. To Gov. Ron DeSantis and his supporters, it seems, any mention of BLM is one too many. They don’t want kids to get the “wrong” idea about it — which is the fear of the censor in all times and places.
That also seemed to be the fear of Scholastic, the publishing giant that asked Maggie Tokuda-Hall to revise the author’s note in her children’s book “Love in the Library.” The story describes how her grandparents met in an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. Her note connects that story to present-day racism, including the central issue that motivated the Black Lives Matter movement: police violence against African Americans.
“As much as I would hope this would be a story of a distant past, it is not,” the note begins. “It’s very much a story of America here and now. The racism that put my grandparents into Minidoka (the camp where they were interned) is the same hate that keeps children in cages on our border. It’s the myth of white supremacy that brought slavery to our past and allows the police to murder Black people in our present.
“It’s the same fear that brings Muslim bans,” Tokuda-Hall’s note continues. “It’s the same contempt that creates voter suppression, medical apartheid, and food deserts. The same cruelty that carved reservations out of stolen, sovereign land, that paved the Trail of Tears. Hate is not a virus. It is an American tradition.”
Denouncing Scholastic’s “horrific demand for censorship,” Tokuda-Hall refused to allow the book to be published without her note. Scholastic quickly relented, apologizing to Tokuda-Hall and pledging to release the book in its original form. And that’s exactly what it should do.
But what should teachers do when they share the book with their students? If you listen to Tokuda-Hall and her allies, schools should present her statement as a simple matter of fact: The same racism that caused the Japanese American internment persists in other forms today.
“By refusing to let this story be situated in the context of government oppression and enslavement of other minority groups, past and present, it makes it safe for them to say, ‘historically, mistakes were made, but look at how successful Japanese American communities are now,’” literary agent DongWong Song tweeted. “This is white supremacy. This is how it operates.”
That’s a defensible view, but it’s also a debatable one. And Tokuda-Hall and her supporters don’t seem to want that debate, any more than Florida officials want schools to discuss Black Lives Matter.
If they did, they’d pair Tokuda-Hall’s book with the first popular children’s novel on the subject, “The Moved-Outers.” Published in February 1945, when the camps were still in operation, the book tells the story of an 18-year-old Japanese American girl who is interned, encounters white mob violence upon her release, but loves America nevertheless.
“We’re really the newest pioneers,” she declares. “We, the evacuees, the moved-outers. We’re American patriots, loving our country with our hearts broken.”
“The Moved-Outers” was the runner-up for the Newberry Medal — the highest award for children’s literature — in 1946, a very different time in American history. If teachers coupled it with Tokuda-Hall’s book, students would get two contrasting perspectives on the internment. Does it demonstrate the strength of a freedom-loving nation that can overcome its mistakes? Or does it reveal the essential racism that still lies in its heart?
That’s the kind of discussion we need, so our kids can decide who we are. And if you don’t want it, stop complaining about censorship in our schools. You just want your own views to be taught there.
Jonathan Zimmerman teachers education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which was recently released in a 20th-anniversary edition.
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