There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.
We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!
― Arthur Miller, "The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts"
South Carolina English teacher Mary Rose Wood has gone through an ordeal that's sadly familiar to many high school teachers, college professors, librarians, and school administrators: she is being attacked for a book she assigned for her AP English class, for the stimulating open discussions she's facilitating in the classroom, and for her continuing, forceful insistence that her well-practiced pedagogy works; her students do well.
Ms. Wood teaches at Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina, a nearly all-white school. She assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a nonfiction book about the Black experience in the United States.
After a complaint from a student, District officials ordered Ms. Woods to stop teaching Coates' book which has been the target of censorship campaigns across the country. In other words, along with hundreds of other books of note, Between the World and Me has been banned.
Transcripts from a Lexington-Richland 5 School Board meeting obtained by a reporter reveal that school officials were worried that Ms. Wood's choice of Ta-Nehisi's book might be a violation of new state laws preventing schools from using state money to assign a book that might make students feel "discomfort, guilt, or anguish" because of their race. South Carolina is one of five states where book bans have been the most prevalent, alongside Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Utah. Chapin, South Carolina is in Lexington County which has a vocal, well organized Moms for Liberty chapter that has backed school board members among other officials. They recently published a "campaign package" for inexperienced moms who want to run for elected positions.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his everlasting credit, traveled to South Carolina to attend the School Board meeting, and sat next to Woods for support. Though neither of them spoke, their presence was a defiant presence. It is not clear if they were asked to speak, or refused to speak. Ms. Woods is still teaching the book and speaking openly to the press about the attempt at censoring her and the books she chooses to teach. Kudos to her!
If this sad saga seems insane, it is. The attacks were angry and threatening, targeted at Ms. Wood's and Mr. Coates' personhood more than their professionalism. The targeting is very familiar to me: I was denounced and reported to administration by a student during my student teaching days in a gerrymandered school district in Oakland, California, and again more recently at New York University where I taught nonfiction writing for more than two decades.
I wasn't the only professor in the city, or the country, experiencing persecution by militant students on the left and the right in 2020 and 2021. I knew of at least two others—one at Columbia University, one at City University of New York. We all had been demonized by a student mob who reported on social media that we'd been misguided or culturally or gender insensitive, among other defaming slurs, then pilloried in front of a kangaroo –academic – tribunal, terminated and/or shunned by frightened colleagues. I was grateful, at least, that in higher education there are no angry parents to contend with, or young students complaining to their parents, or incited by their parents.
When did students acquire so much power? Where are the adults in the room? Why didn't the South Carolina Education Association(the South Carolina teachers' union, affiliated with the National Education Association) attend the school board meeting and advocate for Ms. Woods? Where was ACT-UAW, the NYU Adjunct's Union, when I was pilloried? Present but mostly silent.
Like every other American citizen, a professor employed by a university, or a teacher in a public school, has a right to due process, the right to face her accuser and defend herself, a right to be called to testify openly and without constraint. A school board meeting is not a HUAC meeting, it is not a Salem Witch Trial. Or is it?
For more information:
If you are local, please join me for a a Banned Book Club at the Gardiner Library. November and December will be virtual.
October 12: Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness
November 9: Art Spiegelman, Maus
December 14: George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue