When Governors State University professor Rashidah Muhammad put together a read-in showcasing the writings of African Americans at the university decades ago, she never imagined that today in states across the country teachers and librarians would be grappling with book bans and restrictions on how Black history and racism are taught.
As preparations are underway for the annual national read-in event, Muhammad, a professor of English and secondary education who is working on creating a minor in Black studies at Governors State, worries about the book bans. She has taught courses on American, African American, Native American and women literatures; and Black studies and studies in race, class and gender. But she fears Black history is being sanitized and watered down in parts of the U.S. to the detriment of students and society.
Illinois has largely bucked the trend. But the American Library Association said there were 67 attempts to ban books in Illinois in 2022, according to media reports. There were attempts to restrict access to 22 books and 98 challenges in those attempts from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2023, according to the association’s website.
Last June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation making Illinois the first state in the country to prohibit book bans. Under the law, which took effect in January, public libraries could be barred from state grants if they remove books from their shelves or restrict them for “partisan or personal” reasons.
Looking at what’s happening across the country, Muhammad said, “I’m very concerned because they are erasing history and erasing the voices of lived experiences,” that tell the collective story.
“You need to have all sides of everything. These are our experiences. Black history is American history. There is no American history without Black history.”
There were 3,362 recorded instances of book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries from July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023, and students lost access to 1,557 book titles, according to free speech advocacy group PEN America’s website.
“Amid a growing climate of censorship, school book bans continue to spread through coordinated campaigns by a vocal minority of groups and individual actors and, increasingly, as a result of pressure from state legislation,” the site notes.
These steps backward mean “we have to double our efforts” to ensure voices aren’t silenced, said Muhammad, who has a doctorate in English.
Efforts are underway to do just that. Muhammad cited action by the National Council of Teachers of English. The group has on its website “Freedom to Teach: Statement Against Banning Books.” It notes school districts are “the most active battlefield in the American culture wars today.”
The website states book bans “and legislation redlining teaching about racism in American history” combined with “false claims about ‘obscenity’ invading classrooms, the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change, challenges to the need for making sense of and critiquing our world in mathematics classrooms … are putting excessive and undue pressure on teachers. They are caught in the crossfire of larger political conflict, motivated by cultural shifts and stoked for political gain.”
Teachers must be free to exercise their professional judgment, decide what materials best suit their students in meeting curriculum demands, discuss disturbing parts of American history and, if and when they judge students are ready, to determine how to help them navigate the psychological and social challenges of growing up, the statement notes. They “need the freedom to prepare students to become future members of a democratic society who can engage in making responsible and informed contributions and decisions about our world.”
The council’s website has an Intellectual Freedom Center with resources to help teachers dealing with book bans. The site includes a Rationale Database that teachers and librarians across the country can use as a resource in choosing and defending books and text. The database is searchable by title, author and grade level. The site also includes a place to report censorship.
Teaching true Black history is critical, said Muhammad, citing the late author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who said, “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you have been.”
The National African American Read-In at Governors State takes place from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Engbretson Hall. The event, among read-ins being held across the country, will feature poems, short stories, memoirs, novels and other literary works written by Black authors.
The national program is the nation’s first and oldest event dedicated to diversity in literature, according to the National Council of Teachers of English. It was launched in 1990 by the Black Caucus of the council with the goal of making literacy a key part of Black History Month and to encourage communities to read together. Since then, the event has reached more than six million participants globally, according to the council. Schools, churches, libraries, bookstores, community and professional organizations have participated and continue to do so.
Students, deans, faculty, staff and south suburban residents have been among past participants at Governors State’s read-ins, which are open to the public.
“We’ve had people ages 6 to 83 participate,” Muhammad said.
In the past, the event has featured poetry by June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou; speeches by former President Barack Obama; and passages from books by Toni Morrison and other Black authors, among other literature.
To register for this year’s read-in, email RMuhammad@govst.edu or go to www.eventbrite.com/e/34th-annual-african-american-read-in-tickets-788310888087.
Among Black History Month events that took place at Governors State Saturday were performances by Chicago-based dance companies Muntu Dance Theatre and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater. They performed authentic and progressive interpretations of contemporary and ancient African and African American dance, music and storytelling.
Black History Month events later this month at Governors State include Black Excellence: A Celebration of Black Inventions, from 1-3 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Hall of Governors, and Power of the Vote: Get Out the Vote Text Banking, a virtual event at 7 p.m. on Feb. 27. Participants will text message potential voters in areas with historically low turnout. For more information on these and other Black History Month events at the university, email email@example.com.
Francine Knowles is a freelance columnist for the Daily Southtown.