Parents of sixth graders in a gifted language-arts class at Marvin Ridge Middle School received an email from their children’s teacher last month warning them that a book selected for the class’s unit on African American literature would at times be “uncomfortable.”
The teacher at the Union County school, Cason Treharn, was confident, however, that her academically advanced students were mature enough to handle Melba Pattillo Beals’s autobiographical account of the Little Rock Nine’s integration of Central High School in Arkansas in 1957.
Beals was one of nine Black students who stared down angry mobs of white racists and segregationists to attend the previously all-white school. The students were taunted by classmates and their parents, threatened by mobs and attacked with lighted sticks of dynamite. It was an ugly time in America but also a seminal moment in the struggle for civil rights, coming as it did in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional.
Beals documented the harrowing experience in “Warriors Don’t’ Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High.”
According to an email shared with Policy Watch, Treharn thought the book would provide valuable insight into how segregation, racism and discrimination shaped the South during the 1950s.
“Although this content may be intense or uncomfortable at certain times, I encourage all students to understand these ideas, so that they can better navigate the news and the world around them,” Treharn wrote to parents.
But some parents objected to the book, contending that some of the themes are inappropriate for sixth graders. Beals, for example, shares that she was the victim of attempted rape.
She described the rape attempt in Chapter 2.
I crept forward, and then I saw him—a big white man, even taller than my father, broad and huge, like a wrestler. He was coming toward me fast [….] My heart was racing almost as fast as my feet. I couldn’t hear anything except for the sound of my saddle shoes pounding the ground and the thud of his feet close behind me. That’s when he started talking about “niggers” wanting to go to school with his children and how he wasn’t going to stand for it. My cries for help drowned out the sound of his words, but he laughed and said it was no use because nobody would hear me.”
Contradictory messages, fears of reprisal
A day after her first email, and just as the nation prepared to turn its attention to Black History Month, Treharn sent a second message instructing parents to cancel their Amazon.com orders for Beals’s book. “Please cancel your book order to ‘Warriors Don’t Cry,’ due to the nature of the content,” Treharn wrote. “Although we are using an approved AIG [Academically or Intellectually Gifted] book, feedback from some students, parents and teachers, has allowed more insight into creating a different book choice.”
Shortly after that, Union County Public Schools notified parents that Treharn had been mistaken. The book had not been banned. Instead, others were included as part of the required reading assignment to give options to parents and students who found Bealss’ book objectional.
“The information that was sent out to parents was sent out in error, saying the book was banned and it was not,” explained Tahira Stalberte, assistant superintendent of communications and community relations for UCPS.
The optional books include: “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” “The Kidnapped Prince,” and “The Secret of Gumbo Grove.”
A parent of a Marvin Ridge middle schooler said the protest against Beals’s book was surprising because it has been on the district’s approved reading list for more than five years. Parents did not complain about an earlier book that had similar content to that found in Beals’s book, the parent said.
“These issues have never been brought up until this year when we all know, CRT, hot topic, is happening all across this country, so the parents chose this year to bring up complaints about it,” the parent said.
The parent asked that her name not be used for this story because she fears discussing the issue publicly would follow her child throughout the remainder of the school year. Such fear has become increasingly common among parents and educators who stand against efforts to ban books and push back against opponents of vaccines and masking.
A pushback against censorship
The email exchange between Treharn and parents, as well as the adoption of optional reading materials to appease parents show the difficulties for teachers and school districts navigating the latest battle in the culture war.
Book bans appear to be a natural extension of conservatives’ attempt to use Critical Race Theory (CRT) to further divide the nation. CRT is an obscure academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and policy. Critics complain educators use CRT to teach impressionable children that America and white people are inherently and irredeemably racist.
Janice Robinson, the North Carolina program director for Red, Wine & Blue, an Ohio-based group that helps to steer suburban mothers toward progressive political candidates, is helping parents fight book bans.
“We believe that this just a smokescreen for the anti-CRT, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that’s been going around the country,” Robinson said. “It’s the right wing really pushing their political agenda at the expense of our kids.”
Robinson said conservatives are attempting “whitewash” history by targeting books about Blacks.
“When you look at the books being banned, they’re books on African American history, about race or LGBTQ issues,” she said. “Parents have a right to be concerned, but there is a process that schools and school libraries have in place to address those concerns. The problem is that people are going around the process and pulling books off the shelf because one parent has an issue with it.”
DISCUSS: Tell us what you think. What books have impacted your life? What can we do to protect books on both LGBTQ issues and race?
Most educators say CRT isn’t taught in K-12 schools. Nevertheless, it has become an effective tool for conservative politicians looking for wedge issues to fuel their candidacies. In Virginia, for example, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, in a tightly contested race in which CRT and education became key issues.
A growing list of complaints
Parents have now begun to follow-up on the anti-CRT campaign by filling school board meetings to protest books they claim are too vulgar or explicit for school-aged children.
In December, a group of angry parents attended a Wake County school board meeting to complain about library books featuring LGBTQ characters. And in Moore County, parents have filed a complaint calling for the book “George” to be removed from libraries based on the allegation that it contains sexually graphic material. The book is also one of three that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has criticized based on the same complaint.
In fact, the book, which tells the story of a young transgender girl, does not contain sexually graphic content. It does include a pair of references that, in addition to the identity of the protagonist, have drawn complaints from some parents. This includes a passage in which the central character’s brother wonders whether she has been looking at “porn,” and another in which there is discussion of clearing the internet browsing history on a computer.
At a recent Union County Public Schools Board of Education meeting, Heidi Cristaldi, a district parent, criticized her daughter’s required reading — “Into the Wild” by John Krakauer — complaining that the teacher pushed the idea that the book about a suburban college student’s trek to the wilderness is really about white privilege.
“Our kids should not be shamed for the color of their skin or be told that they are oppressed or oppressors because of something they have no control over,” Cristaldi said.
She also parroted a popular conservative lament that today’s students know too much about their teachers’ political affiliations, social justice causes and sexual orientation.
“Our children are not social justice warriors and they should not be indoctrinated in schools to become one,” Cristaldi said.
She urged the school board to “punish” teachers who stray from the approved curriculum.
Stacey Swanson, a member of the district’s Policy and Curriculum Committee, reminded the school board that parents have always had the right to opt out of an assignment and to request an alternative one. “I encourage you and my community to not shy away from the value of discomfort but to lean into it, to have difficult conversations and to keep literature of value accessible to all,” Swanson said.
She said parents should be more concerned about the content children read and view on social media than approved books that have gone through a rigorous vetting process.
“Is there the same collective outrage for Tik Tok challenges and Twitter and the inappropriate content that lives there?” Swanson asked. “Do we monitor what children receive or their cellphone, Snap Chat? I assure you there is horrendous content there as well.”
This story originally appeared on NC Policy Watch.