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August 24, 2022
Citing the need to “reflect on the terrible toll of slavery,” Joe Biden last weekend observed this country’s first Slavery Remembrance Day, marking the “ignominious milestone” of the day in 1619 when the first slave ship, the British White Lion, landed in the American colonies at Virginia’s Point Comfort. (Surreal names, all.) “More than 400 years ago, twenty enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the shores of what would become the United States,” Biden said in a statement. “Millions more were stolen and sold in the centuries that followed, part of a system of slavery that is America’s original sin.” The official recognition of those “sins worth hiding” came as a result of a bill introduced by Dem Rep. Al Green of Texas and Sen. Elizabeth Warren; it has passed in the House but will likely languish in the Senate. In their statements, Warren and Biden both pointedly reject the right’s current white-washing of history. Warren: “The horrors of slavery can never be forgotten.” Biden: “Great nations don’t hide from their history. They acknowledge their past, both the triumphs and the tragedies.”
Last weekend also marked an anniversary of the triumph and tragedy that was this country’s only slave rebellion. On Aug. 21, 1831, the enslaved but literate Nat Turner, a man of “uncommon intelligence” who regularly read the Bible and preached to his fellow slaves, led about 70 black Virginians from house to house freeing enslaved people and murdering about 60 white people. Fervently religious, Turner later said he acted after he’d heard “a loud noise in the heavens” urging him to “take it on and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” State militia put down the uprising in days, randomly killing at least 200 blacks. Turner was captured in October, tried and hanged; some reports said he was subsequently skinned, with his body parts distributed as trophies to white families. Still, Southern whites were spooked. Even as northern abolitionists used the revolt to argue it was time to end an untenable system of slavery, fearful slavers in the south doubled down, further restricting black lives; the move, historians say, contributed to a polarization that helped lead to the Civil War.
One key restriction: Southern states began passing laws making it a crime to teach black Americans, whether enslaved or free, to read and write, arguing that “an educated enslaved person was a dangerous person.” In an antebellum South where perhaps 10% of enslaved people were literate and the system of slavery was justified by the notion black people were “less than human, permanently illiterate and dumb,” the relatively learned Nat Turner became a symbol of the hazards therein – especially with the fervid rise of Northern abolitionists calling for more slave uprisings and “NO COMPROMISE WITH SLAVERY!” Multiple states threatened fines, flogging and prison for the act of teaching a person of color to read, write or spell; Virginia declared it illegal even to hold gatherings where that might happen. Thus did the project of a now-grievously-dumbed-down America – once nobly based on the enlightened principle that “by applying knowledge and reasoning to the natural world, men could figure out the best way to order society” – become the only country in history to pass anti-literacy laws.
For black people, writes historian Heather Cox Richardson, “Denying access to education exiled them from a place in the nation.” This, she notes, despite Abraham Lincoln’s abiding belief in “book-learning” as a key to progress, and a now-unimaginable Republican support for public education that after emancipation saw literacy rates soar. That trend ended with the tenure of Southern, racist, states-rights-obsessed Andrew Johnson – largely viewed as “the worst possible person to have been president at the end of the Civil War” – a downward spiral that continued for a century until 1954’s SCOTUs ruling against segregated schools finding “separate is not equal.” “And now,” writes Richardson, “a new educational moment.” She cites the mass censorship now facing students – last year, 35 states introduced 137 bills – and its fallout, including teacher shortages, packed classrooms and growing chaos. In 2022, she notes, “It seems worth remembering that in 1831, lawmakers afraid that Black Americans exposed to the ideas in books and schools would claim the equality that was their birthright under the Declaration of Independence made sure their Black neighbors could not get an education.”
Thanks to the growing power of right-wing zealots intent on hiding our history – and any ideas, identities or values that Good Lord might differ from theirs ’cause aghh scary – the state-sponsored, Orwellian purging of knowledge hurtles on. Last year, 1,586 books were banned in 86 school districts in 26 states, affecting over two million students – black and white, straight and queer, largely in the South. And in a fraught climate of fear mixed with newfound power, the hysteria – Porn! Marxism! Gender! Slavery! Weirdness! – mounts. Targeting mostly race and gender, they’ve banned donated dictionaries – “F” is for fascism – Banned Books displays – irony still alive – and a graphic novel of Anne Frank’s Diary, often after a single complaint by a single freaked-out wingnut because, noted Better Call Saul, it only takes one. The methods range – district mandates to remove books, fearful staff preemptively taking them down, parental permission or notification (aka spying) and tinpot GOP governors crafting insanely byzantine laws like Florida’s Stop WOKE Act – “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” – that might as well be named, “Yikes, Just Don’t Read Anything, Okay?” Act.
The despotic DeathSantis’ Florida, where a court just found a pregnant 16-year-old girl wasn’t “mature enough” to get an abortion, definitely wins the Slouching To Gideon Award. DeSantis spends much of his time theatrically signing repressive, paranoid, white-washing laws “straight out of the authoritarian playbook” aimed at non-existent problems; behind him, he usually, slimily, stations baffled kids holding signs they don’t understand about a bill that will, in fact, make them dumber, meaner and more fearful. Happily, after a lawsuit from a democracy-minded non-profit, a federal judge just blocked as unconstitutional his infamous Stop WOKE Act, which in the name of the “pernicious” notion there’s racism in the U.S., would have banned race-based discussion in schools or businesses that made anyone “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress,” like you sometimes do in, you know, real life. The judge ruled the impermissibly vague bill violates the First Amendment and creates a “Stranger Things” parallel dimension where private citizens can’t block free speech but the state can.“ The GOP “may well find Plaintiffs’ speech repugnant, he noted, “but under our constitutional scheme the remedy for repugnant speech is more speech, not enforced silence.”
While another lawsuit by the ACLU that calls the law “racially motivated censorship” is still pending, educators across Florida are scrambling to enforce, interpret and navigate a maze of similarly Brave-New-World-ish edicts. In trainings for a new history curriculum, alarmed teachers say they’ve been tasked with molding “desirable citizens” via rewritten, very Christian, largely fictional history that careens from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, skipping a murderous Reconstruction Era, a painful Jim Crow era whose toxic effects still linger, and other ugly historic facts of our supposedly exceptional country. Just to ensure no unsavory truths emerge, a new lawrequires a “certified media specialist” to inspect all public school material to ensure it’s age-appropriate and not potentially harmful; it also mandates schools publish online the books kids will be reading so wigged-out parents can clamor for them to be removed. One catch: state-approved training for the “specialists” doesn’t start till January; in the meantime, jittery school officials have cancelled fall book fairs and frozen acquiring new books ’cause, really, who needs books anyway? At least one school system reportedly urgedteachers to place “Under Construction” signs in their now-empty libraries, and make them “cute,” like a Nazi parade.
Right behind Florida in the march to fascism, also theocracy, is Texas, which boasts the most book bans (713) and newly mandates public schools display in a “conspicuous place” any donated posters declaring, “In God We Trust.” WTF. In its latest purge, one district just ordered the removal of 41 books that survived earlier challenges under less rabid rules; they include the Bible and Anne Frank. A rich white district already under federal civil rights investigation went further: It removed a book by George Dawson, born in 1898 the grandson of slaves, who learned to read at age 98, became an advocate for literacy, wrote a 2000 memoir, “Life Is So Good,” and died a year later at 103; his book is now banned at the school that bears his name, George Dawson Middle School – though officials say it’s not really banned, just “unavailable,” its review “tabled,” with “the process to evaluate which sections of the book are appropriate still underway,” blah blah. His great-grandson Chris Irvin thinks the issue is the first chapter, where a young Dawson witnesses the lynching of his best friend, wrongly accused of rape. On sins to be “never forgotten,” nor willfully erased: “You (can’t) take away the bad and the ugly (and) only talk about the good.” “I can’t go to your history and tell you, ‘Hey, X that out of your life, that didn’t happen,” he argues. “It’s (the) whole puzzle (that) makes us human.”
“That boy looked at me but didn’t, couldn’t believe a word I said, and I shut up because he didn’t even see me. He saw an old black man, a gardener…I stopped talking and he didn’t learn nothing about his grandma’s loom. He wasn’t ready to learn.” – George Dawson, on trying to tell a young white boy about a piece of his history.
Abby Zimet has written Common Dreams’s Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.