Over the past few years, I watched incredulously as books for young readers got challenged or banned. The majority were created by Black people, people of color, Indigenous, and/or LGBTQ+ writers and illustrators.
I wondered about my own books. Had my books been banned, too? In a self protection measure, I did not look. I am an African American author-illustrator of children’s biographies. I write true stories about little-known African American heroes—people who’ve made great contributions to American history in the face of tremendous obstacles. Their biggest challenges, unfortunately, were most often racism.
Recently, I learned that “Carter Reads the Newspaper: The Story of Carter G. Woodson, Founder of Black History Month” (Peachtree), a picture book that I illustrated, was banned in Duval County Schools in Florida. Ironically, I received the news while checking email over dinner with authors and librarians at the FAME conference in Florida.
I was bewildered. “Carter Reads The Newspaper” is the story of a young Black child who reads the newspaper to his father, who could not read. The story is set during the years immediately following the Civil War. Reading the newspaper is how Carter kept his father and others informed (“Woke” if you will), about the world in which they lived. Carter G. Woodson grew up to found Negro History Week, the precursor to Black History Month. Who in the world, I wondered, would object to a book that explains the origins of Black History Month—a celebration that is observed at many schools throughout the country? Did these same people challenge books about the origins of Independence Day? Are they against stories about Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Thomas Jefferson? Or are they only banning books that include the history of people who look like me? Also, I found it especially curious that the Black population of Duval County, Florida is about 30-percent, according to Data USA.
What to do?
When I first learned about the ban, I wasn’t sure how to respond—if at all. I gave it some more thought. I try to live by the serenity prayer: accept things I cannot change; have the courage to change things I can; and to possess wisdom to know the difference. Racism has been around for a long time. I’m not likely to change that reality anytime soon—I accept that. But I also have the wisdom to know that the eraser of a people’s history is dangerous. I must have the courage to keep telling Black people’s stories. I believe there are more people in the U.S. who care about truth, than those who don’t.
Carter G. Woodson was an advocate for teaching the whole truth about U.S. history, including the stories of Black people who had been enslaved (a history that’s come under attack on many sides, including some who’d rather these stories go away entirely, or somehow be told joyfully). Woodson believed that truth is essential in the direction of a genuine democracy. I believe that, too.
Knowledge is power, and therefore efforts to prevent people from knowing things have been around for a long time. During slavery, anti-literacy laws were put in place to keep African Americans uninformed. I can’t let my readers down. And I won’t allow myself to be discouraged. Regardless of what books get banned in Duval County schools in Florida, or anywhere else in this country for that matter, I plan to keep doing the work. I will keep writing stories to empower all children with lifesaving knowledge. I feel awful for children who live in communities were stories are getting banned. They are the real casualties of the crazy political environment in which we live in today.
I will never stop telling true stories about real people. I will continue telling stories about history, especially Black history. And I will always be honest with my readers, because a child’s knowledge is the one thing the haters cannot challenge or ban.