Black Lives Matter in the Classroom: A Roundtable on Teaching CRT and Disputed Literature Today
Lynnette Mawhinney Speaks with Cicely Lewis, Christopher Stewart, Shamika J. Simpson, Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, and Holly Y. McGee
Every first week of December, Catalyst Press celebrates #ReadingAfrica week. I wanted to chat with educators and librarians who celebrate and embrace the philosophy of #ReadingAfrica week year-round. Specifically, I wanted to explore questions around how U. S. politics and media have shaped, challenged, or tried to alter classrooms and libraries. As we close out the year 2023 and enter into an election year in 2024, this conversation hopes to bring to light the realities of censorship and lack of representation of Black authors in schools, while providing context for how to hold on to hope and advocacy.
The conversation comes at a critical pass where Black and Brown authors are being banned, essentially, just for the color of their skin. This is, sadly, nothing new. Enslaved people were forced into illiteracy, Nazis banned and burned books; literature is always the first stopping point in trying to oppress others. The U.S. is now at a point where there are attempts to ban critical thinking in schools (e.g. Texas).
I wanted this conversation to be around the daily resistance that takes place as Black educators and librarians continue to do right by their students and provide for them with the best in literature. May this conversation uplift all of the parents, community members, educators, and librarians working hard to best serve our youth through and with ALL literature and across the Black diaspora.
–Dr. Lynnette Mawhinney, proud Black educator and author
Lynnette Mawhinney: One could argue that teachers and librarians have been taking a beating lately in media. I would like to start the first question with a reframing of the dialogue. What are the assets and benefits of being a Black educator or librarian today?
Cicely Lewis: Despite the bannings and book challenges, experiencing the increase in diversity in books being published has been amazing. I love when I open a box and I see a girl with natural hair on the cover like in I RISE, Hair Love, etc. And the diversity in fantasy books–reading about kids that have traditionally not been represented in fantasy with superpowers fighting against evil–has been refreshing. Reading Renee Watson’s Love is a Revolution, which features a full-figured protagonist on the cover, and it is all about her falling in love.
The benefits of being a Black educator is providing representation. Equally important to students having representation in literature is having representation in their school community. Furthermore, having Black educators involved in decision-making policy for schools helps to ensure that different perspectives are being represented. When I see a Black boy with locs wearing a hoodie come into the library, I see my teenaged son, Tristan. I think about how I want people to treat him.
However, I know some will look at him and see a threat or someone who “fits the profile.” They don’t see the boy who loves playing the violin, speaks German, and likes listening to NPR with his mom. Being a Black educator allows me the advantage of having a foot in both worlds, and it allows me to advocate from that vantage point.
Christopher Stewart: As a Black male educator and librarian, I am fortunate to be able to serve students and fellow educators with empathy and compassion. Being able to provide access to a wide array of materials that help to share a bold, confident, and beautiful representation of what it means to be Black in the world, is complete joy. My mission and goal is to ensure every Black body I encounter knows that they are powerful beyond measure, they have deep and courageous ancestral history, their truth matters and that they are the future.
Shamika J. Simpson: First, I want to say that we exist. Black educators and librarians bring a wealth of community, culture, experience, and perspective that is beneficial to all students. We show students that qualified, credentialed teachers can come from all walks of life. Black educators and librarians provide an example of success, and that life is not determined or limited by zip code.
Ahmed Ismail Yusuf: The assets of being Black educator and librarian is to be both a guide and cartographer, holding the hands of a child that needs a light to move through the wilderness of being alone and far from world language. Benefits are bringing the needy child into the open landscape of knowing. That child who possibly lacks social capital or the means to see someone to emulate at home or in his neighborhood, would encounter the world through a book. No one knows the identity of that particular child. What we know though is that each child would respond to someone who resembles him or her.
Holly Y. McGee: The benefit of being a Black educator today is that I can get away with saying things white educators simply cannot. As a scholar of African American History, most particularly one of nineteenth-century slavery, I can talk about race, racism, and the function of race in America and be taken as an authority in a way that many of my white colleagues simply cannot. I can own pejorative language in class discussions—most specifically the N-word when applicable—and not fear that I’ll be reported to the administration. Even if I am, I have little to no fear that it will impact my employment.
LM: In school districts and libraries across America, there has been enlivened discussions on book and author censorship. What are your thoughts on the future of censorship in America?
CS: Too often the discussion is not around “censorship for all” but only certain authors and materials are censored. Censored for what?, you may ask. The censoring of Black, Brown and LGBTQIA + authors and materials that bring awareness to racist and discriminatory histories is purposely done, to produce a false narrative about present-day America and its history. Being able to confront such horrendous historical acts against certain groups, through texts, and display accurate portrayals of all, is equity.
In my home and school library collections, it is filled with authors and books that represent the wholeness of humanity. In this wholeness, that’s how we learn to grow, never repeating the acts of yesterday that cause so much harm. I believe that consciousness will grow without bound, causing the future to be less censored and more embraced with truth-telling stories of resilience.
SJS: Censorship, in particular book bans, are cantankerous tools of cowards. A plethora of rationales are used to negatively label books and authors to make it easy to silence voices, perspectives or belief systems that differ from the white, cisgender norms. Censorship silences authentic voices. It prevents the opportunity for people to learn from and about one another. The rationales used to ban books should be the catalyst for difficult conversations to dismantle ignorance.
Unfortunately, I do not have much faith that censorship will stop. Take a look at the book ban statistics and reasons for challenges. The bans and challenges are a harsh reminder that the hatred and racism on which this country was “founded” continues to grow.
HYM: I feel that as long as there are politicians out there who are poorly educated and afraid of poly-syllabic words themselves, the scourge of censorship—which is really just their ways of keeping the wider populace just as if not even more ignorant than them—will remain a national affliction.
AIY: Banning books that don’t conform to one’s ideal world of righteousness is a dangerous, destructive behavior that has been with us since 1614. But most recently, we know that some of the best literary canons (Ulysses, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath), just to name a few, have been on that list. Can we imagine a world without just one of them?
We can attest to the fact that anyone who read one of them, let alone all or more, would see the mindless, moronic mind that had concluded that harm was in them; thus, decided they should be protected from the public. Quite the contrary, we admire the brain that produced them. Nevertheless, I am in the mind that it is going to fade into the dustbin of past infamy but not without damage. Hope again, is that it is not a lasting one.
CL: I am a positive person so I am hopeful that we can fight back and prevail against some of these new insane laws. Although the outcome looks bleak, I am encouraged by the fact that many districts are using their power to make changes on the local level in order to make sure diverse books stay in schools. I worry about educators who are self-censoring out of fear.
LM: Some critics are categorizing all Black literature (either written about or by Black folx) as a movement in critical race theory (CRT), often with a misunderstanding of what critical race theory even is. How do you define CRT? Is it inherently positive, negative, or neutral? What are some ways you have seen educators or librarians push back against the categorization of all Black literature as CRT?
HYM: CRT is not new, it is not novel, and it is also not something the vast majority of educators or parents with young children in elementary and secondary schools need worry about. CRT addresses the role of racism in the law and is mainly used by progressive legal scholars (and legal students) to interrogate the role of race and racism in society in the legal academy. Black literature is a convenient target for poorly-informed people desperately grasping at argumentative straws in an effort to take part in a social conversation they just don’t know anything about.
SJS: CRT is the critical examination of the multifaceted intersection of race, systemic racism, legislature, policy, social justice and more. CRT is seen negatively thanks in large part to the media and folks who are afraid of the truth. Anything written by people Black folx is vilified and labeled CRT. CRT, like book bans, are tools to destroy progress.
CL: CRT to my knowledge is taught on the graduate level, and it focuses on how racism impacts and influences laws, and other elements of our society. It is the belief that racism is embedded in our legal system and policies. I think CRT is based on research and findings from studies. Educators are fighting back by hosting banned books weeks, events, and lessons. They are speaking at board meetings and sharing their stories on social media to increase awareness.Blackness is not a condition, nor should it be solely defined in the context of CRT.
I am fighting back with my nonprofit. I purchase books for teachers, and I giveaway books at churches and local community events. I have raised money, and this year, I was able to award two scholarships. I will never stop fighting, and I will continue to advocate for teaching Black History which is American History. Black History is not CRT; it is American History, it is World History, it is our history, and it matters.
AIY: Critical Race Theory is a conceptual roadmap with historical references that needs to be taught as well as practiced. Scholars began to address and examine the disease of persistent racial inequalities. The loudest proponents, however, are race-baiting communities, who are weaponizing fear of losing the grip of power in a world that is rapidly changing.
It must be frightening to see that minoritized people are not only exposing past crimes committed against them but want to chart a future path. To them, a demon that will destabilize the world as they know it has been unleashed! But the more they scream, the more they awaken an able body and mind that would challenge the norm.
CS: Critical Race Theory is a lens to examine systemic American racism, while researching methodologies that help define structures to combat and destroy such systems of oppression. Blackness is not a condition, nor should it be solely defined in the context of CRT. I would empower critics to consider that White literature may be threaded with CRT due to its proximity to systemic racism. CRT at its intentional core, is truth-based. When librarians provide overarching Black, Brown, and White experiences for audiences to digest through literature, they are helping debunk stereotypes and offer accurate accounts of the human experience.
LM: The New York City Coalition for Educational Justice put out a report in 2020 around curriculum representation in New York City—the most racially diverse school district in the United States. When looking at the forty-two texts in Pre-kindergarten to fourth grade curriculum, “there are zero Black authors, zero Native authors, zero Middle Eastern authors, one Latinx author, one Asian author, and forty white authors.”
That’s a few years ago now, but those numbers likely haven’t shifted significantly, and representation, not only of the characters themselves but also the authors, remains very bleak. How should teachers and librarians adapt to the ever-stricter curriculum requirements that continues leaving Black lives at the door?
CS: Book Apartheid is the intentional and systemic treatment and forsaking of select groups, neighborhoods, and communities; preventing them from accessing books that represent them and/ or their likeness, literary resources, including bookstores, libraries, and technological advances.
In tandem with parents and guardians, teachers and librarians are tasked with providing one most of the important educational tools to our students—mirrors and windows. When a student has the ability to see themselves (i.e. mirrors) in all their beauty and brilliance, that empowering experience helps to propel them to the highest of educational heights.
In the context of books, this idea of seeing oneself allows them to understand that they can hold space in the publishing world and that there are no spatial limits. With no representation or only certain types of representation, windows can become foggy. Black students deserve to see themselves in all genres, texts and as all types of characters in these texts. Frankly, there is no adapting to curriculums that don’t Black students opportunities to see their stories and the rich stories of those that look like them.
Creating intentional learning environments that provide inclusive and diverse texts, while challenging educational spaces that lack the literary competency to serve all, must be the mission.
SJS: There have been some amazing websites, resource guides, social media posts, podcasts, books, and articles published by educators and librarians. I also love the formal and informal workshops, webinars and conversations surrounding CRT, cultural competence, and diverse/inclusive book collections. I see many educators and librarians of all walks of life working together to defy normative ideologies.
CL: For those who can, replace and supplement. As a former classroom teacher, I used to always replace texts to help meet the needs of my students. However, I know many may not be able to do that, so I suggest using independent reading. Independent and choice reading are great ways to help make sure that students have exposure to diverse texts. Partner with your school librarian and public librarian. I just completed a teaching guide with Penguin Random House that supplies teachers with resources and book lists to guide them.
AIY: African Americans have never been invited to the lunch-counter without loud and louder voices that demand so. This should not be any different. Thus, loud and louder voices should be raised. The neglected and ignored communities, both Black and Brown, should vote with their mouth and feet. Librarians and teachers should ally themselves with these groups’ parents, grassroot advocacy agencies, foundations, politicians and school boards. They should engage the progressive media as well as the new phenomenon called “social media.”
HYM: Teachers and librarians need to stop acting like they’ve never heard of “optional readings” or “supplemental readings.” Sure, there are mandated readings, but as an educator you have the right, the power, the privilege, and the duty, to expose your learners to a wide array of educational materials that open their minds, spark their curiosity, and encourage independent thought. If a student makes the mistake of asking me for more information, more reading, more exposure to ideas…you’d better believe I’ll give it to them.
LM: Black literature is often seen as a monolith, yet the diaspora is diverse in place, identity, and even genre. What are some reading recommendations or literature shout outs you would give educators and librarians looking to push against the norm? How are educators and librarians using international books to explore wider themes in the diaspora?
HYM: This is a tough question only because it depends on the age range that you’re asking about. One of my go-to recommendations for any college student thinking about pursuing graduate work in African American History is the Norton Anthology of African American Literature edited by Nellie McKay and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
This is what I consider one-stop-shopping for all things Black lit. Every person, every genre, every major historical polemic, everything you think you want to know about Black lit (and by proxy history) is likely buried in these pages. I’ve had my treasured copy since graduate school when I was a student of Nellie McKay at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I still pull it off the bookshelf every now and again when I need to check a reference. It’s worth its weight in gold.
AIY: I am of the opinion that every book written by the African American luminaries (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, James Baldwin Chester Hems, Tony Marson, Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, just to name a few) or written about them are a wise recommendation. Second, librarians should pay keen attention to the publishing press like Catalyst Press; so that diverse, valuable publications should be seen, heard, and then read.
Additionally, I am going to mention three African writers’ most recent work: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste; Halley’s Comet by Hannes Barnad; and The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed.
CL: Celebrating Black Joy has been key in this area. I recognized that I need balance in my own writing which is why I created the Hair Magic Series with Lerner Publishing. It is about a young Black girl who loves her family and community. She learns valuable lessons from her family and makes a difference in her community.
My other works were essential too. I wrote about my life growing up experiencing parental incarceration in a book entitled Mass Incarceration, Black Men, and the Fight for Justice. I wrote one book from each collection of books and served as the executive editor for the other books. The series focused on topics that address important issues. However, if you just have books about the struggle and not the joy, you are not adequately representing the culture.
With that in mind, I created the Hair Magic Series. My recommendations are School Trip by Jerry Craft, Bo at the Buzz by Elliot Smith, and The Getaway by Lamar Giles. Read my reviews here. Using international or global books can greatly enhance empathy, knowledge, and compassion. I actually curated a list using Chimamande Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story as the inspiration. Some of the books I curated are here.Black literature is often seen as a monolith, yet the diaspora is diverse in place, identity, and even genre.
SJS: There are so many great books to choose from. The following books are the ones that immediately come to mind: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Delicious Monsters by Liselle Sambury, In Search of Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, and You Mean It or You Don’t: James Baldwin’s Radical Challenge by Adam McGhee and Adam Hollowell.
CS: Oh, how I had to edit down…there is no list of Black literature that cannot include, James Baldwin, anything by Baldwin, in particular, Notes of a Native Son.
The following reads reveal the depth of literary genius that rests in the hearts and souls of Black bodies: Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People by Kekla Magoon, Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead, White Out by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicole Yoon, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, The Meaning of Freedom by Angela Y. Davis, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Becoming Ari, by none other than me, due out May 2024, a four-part series that follows Ari, a Black and Indian, nine-year-old little boy who, along with his friends have created a secret kindness society that empowers and enriches their community. Being exposed to a diversity of Black narratives helps all see themselves and all appreciate one another.
Exploring the vastness of the international publishing world has allowed librarians and fellow educators to travel through texts, exposing students to ancient political systems, historical dichotomies, such as war and peace, in the context of nation states, as well as definitions of Blackness, Whiteness and other ethnicities and gender conformity and non-conformity. With the intentional exploration and appreciation of the diaspora, educators can not only select literature, but structure classroom discussions, book club meetings, programming, as well as design curricula that places value on the richness and fullness of the diaspora.