“Fear of unmonitored writing is justified—because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public.”—Toni Morrison, Burn This Book, 2009
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) continues to make headlines for his repeated, deliberate efforts to limit access to information.
- Last year, he banned K-3 public school teachers in the state from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom, through the Parental Rights in Education Act, which opponents dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”
- Earlier this year, DeSantis waged a public battle with the College Board, arguing that its AP African American studies’ curriculum encouraged “discriminatory practices” and “significantly” lacked in educational value.
- His Stop Woke Act, which took effect last month, prohibits school and workplace discussions about racism, oppression, LBGTQ+ issues and economic inequity. (A federal judge called it “positively dystopian.”)
- His administration has banned almost a thousand books that tackle racism and gender issues (and, frankly, many that don’t).
- He’s prohibited programming designed to increase equity and inclusion for publicly funded spaces, categorizing DEI programs broadly as an “experiment” that is coming to an end in Florida.
- Just last week, his appointed cronies dismantled the long-standing gender studies program at the iconic New College. (Prior to the decision, DeSantis appointed six new members to the college’s board of trustees, all of whom were ultra-conservative.)
- In the ’23-’24 school year, students in Florida’s K-12 schools will learn Black history in a way that suggests slavery in the U.S. was, in part, beneficial to Black people—including lessons on how “slaves developed skills” that could be used for “personal benefit.” (Vice President Kamala Harris fired back, accusing DeSantis of “pushing propaganda on our children.”)
These individual actions are part of a larger effort to upend educational rights in the state’s public school system and change the collective understanding of both the history and lived experience of the nation’s most marginalized groups.
By targeting writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, bell hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw—who all focus on issues of racial, economic or gender equality in their works—DeSantis seems particularly determined to silence the voices of Black activists and scholars, especially Black women. This has been a fear of many Black scholars for years.
DeSantis’ war against critical thought—disguised, ironically, as a fight against “indoctrination“—would be more accurately described as a crusade of anti-intellectualism. Thanks to DeSantis, the next generations of Floridians may never be exposed to important perspectives on race and social justice, such as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye, or Ralph Ellison, author of The Invisible Man.
In her 2009 collection of published essays on censorship, Burn This Book, Morrison contemplated what such a legislated erasure of voices could mean for the freedom of critical thought and literary expression. She dreaded the thought of “unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, upstaged plats, canceled films—the thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.”
Morrison, herself, was no stranger to this form of censorship: Many of her titles have been periodically banned for decades. Morrison’s fear reminds us of the long-lasting, deep harm in limiting diversity programs and obscuring historical truths in favor of more palatable narratives.
Intellectual curiosity is better shaped, and U.S. democracy is stronger, when it offers its citizens—especially its children—diversity and representation in thought and viewpoint.
In fact, the war against Black scholarship and educational diversity has a deep-rooted history in the U.S. A century ago—almost exactly like today—“white segregationists were banning anti-racist books and ‘Negro studies’ as well as punishing and threatening anti-racist educators all over Jim Crow America,” wrote Ibram X. Kendi. And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black children under Jim Crow were not allowed to read books that referenced the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, for fear they would learn that they were being denied legal rights that should be extended to all citizens.
It is important for students to be able to see themselves in the stories they read—yet 40 percent of the banned books in the U.S. “feature protagonists or secondary characters of color,” according to PEN America’s Banned Book Index..
Restricting literature and erasing the historical narratives of marginalized groups ultimately weakens children’s political and cultural imagination. “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience,” said Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University.
“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history,” author James Baldwin prophetically said. “So, when they try to erase history, they are trying to erase us and our future.”
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