Required reading for parents and students

April 4, 2022 4:00 am

Nikole Hannah-Jones’ book, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” is displayed at a New York City bookstore in November 2021 (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Here’s an idea: Let’s ban some books.

Take them out of classrooms, purge curricula, gut libraries, unplug Nooks and Kindles.

That should make us feel more comfortable because the acquisition of knowledge, the grasp of insight, and the dual joys of truth and beauty should, above all, never cause discomfort.

I didn’t say it was a good idea. Just an idea.

A foolish one at that … but popular nonetheless.

The number of banned books for students and libraries is increasing as a collection of cranky parents and politicians, fearing children’s discomfort and the public library’s card catalog, are choosing feelings over facts, dressed-up internet drivel over science, and sanitized history over … well, history.

While book banning is nothing new, the American Library Association reports that in the last year, nearly 300 book titles have been challenged for exclusion from schools and public libraries.

The list ranges from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “1984” to “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People” to “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book apparently so discomforting that it is mentioned by name in several states’ proposed legislation to rein in this outburst of reading.

Turn off the TV

Profanity and sexuality are often cited as reasons to ban a book. A gifted or simply prepared teacher should be able to head off and handle such concerns. Plus, no one is suggesting third graders read and discuss “Lolita.”

Some parents, too, might want to turn off TV and read with their kids, explaining, encouraging and, if they feel it necessary, editing.

Still, a troubling trend has surfaced: Parents and others are now shielding students because they believe, for example, that studying slavery will foment guilt or reading a book about LGBTQ teens will rewire biology.

Plus, come on, take a couple laps around the YouTube/Tik-Tok/song lyrics universe, and it’s clear that today’s teens already navigate a social and mass media cesspool.

One catalyst for this latest binge of book banning seems to be something called Critical Race Theory or CRT, an obscure, post-baccalaureate construct about institutional racism occasionally taught in graduate or law schools. For cultural warriors and assorted grievance posses looking for something to get loud about, however, CRT was perfect.

Which brings me to the aforementioned “The 1619 Project,” a history book comprising 18 essays in which writers name names, reveal dates, identify places and miraculously hold together a 400-year through line of slavery’s impact and consequences. While some academics and more than a few politicians have nitpicked the data here and there, I found the scholarship sound and the sources and research peer-reviewed throughout.

Curious about the fuss

I read the book because I was curious about the fuss over CRT, including gubernatorial candidate and University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen proposing last summer that the university prohibit any teaching of CRT although no one could find anyone doing such a thing. His resolution was defeated.

Nevertheless, patrons started showing up at Nebraska school board meetings demanding CRT be booted and “The 1619 Project” banned. Again, no one offered any evidence that either was being taught. The argument was noisier than it was sound. What they wanted was to “protect” students from learning the detailed misery and aftermath that was chattel slavery: the torture, the rapes, the decapitations, the lynchings, the castrations, the beatings, the skin-flaying whips, the breaking apart of families, the soul stealing of leg irons, the culture of inhumanity, the cruelty of Jim Crow laws, the deceitful convenience of poll taxes, the duplicity of separate but equal and the economic underpinnings of slave labor that fueled the nation’s wealth.

So here’s another idea: Instead of banning “The 1619 Project,” let’s require it. Of both parents and students. Then they can discuss it together.

And if it makes someone uncomfortable, good. It sure did me.

Centuries of torture, rape, decapitations, lynchings, castrations, beatings, scars, family disintegration, leg irons, poll taxes, Jim Crow, lies about equality, devious ways to suppress Black votes and centuries of inhumanity should make everyone uncomfortable.

And if, by some chance, shame or even guilt tag along with discomfort, then maybe we’re really starting to look at America’s extraordinary history … all of it.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.