Here’s what happened when Ruby Bridges went to school in 1960.
Four federal marshals escorted her. She walked through a mob of outraged white people. They called her names. They threatened to poison her. And to lynch her. They held up a small casket with a black doll inside. One Southern belle explained to a reporter why she and other New Orleanians felt it necessary to come out first thing in the morning and scream at a 6-year-old girl. “We’re white people,” she shrieked. “We don’t want to go to school with n-----s!”
Here is how Ruby Bridges rendered that scene in Ruby Bridges Goes to School, a 2003 memoir for second-graders.
“Some people did not want a Black child to go to the white school. They stood near the school. They yelled at me to go away.”
It is hard to imagine a more anodyne reading of a more monstrous episode. Yet it was still not anodyne enough for a group of Tennessee parents who filed a complaint over the summer. Ruby Bridges Goes to School was among four books cited by the Williamson County branch of a group called Moms For Liberty for supposedly “explicit and implicit anti-American, anti-white” bias.
Something similar happened in Pennsylvania where, last year, the Central York School District banned a list of books, most of them by or about people of color, including I Am Rosa Parks, a primer on the civil-rights icon by Brad Meltzer. Before the board retreated last week in the face of a backlash from parents, students and teachers, its president, Jane Johnson, claimed the ban was needed because some parents “believe that rather than uniting on diversity, certain resources polarize and divide on diversity and are based on disputed theories and facts.”
Because, yeah, censorship is always for our own good, always represents someone’s principled attempt to protect the rest of us, decide for the rest of us. Books are such dangerous things.
That’s something worth remembering here in Banned Books Week, a yearly observation sponsored by the American Library Association to call attention to that crude human impulse that, with apologies to the Tennessee moms, stands against liberty of knowledge and ideas. There is, after all, a reason one of the first acts of the Nazi regime was a massive book burning -- 25,000 texts consigned to the fire — and it wasn’t to celebrate freedom. The spirit of that atrocity lives on in Tennessee. And in Pennsylvania. And in America.
Indeed, the ALA’s list of banned and challenged books reads like a roadmap to the backroads of our national psyche, the prudishness, small-mindedness, fear, hypocrisy, ignorance and intolerance. It includes: “Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Crippled America” by Donald Trump, “My Two Moms” by Claudia Harrington, “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People” by Dav Pilkey. And the fight over “I Am Rosa Parks” and “Ruby Bridges Goes to School” reminds us that book banning is also an important front in white conservatives’ ongoing war against African-American history.
Those who ban and burn books seek to ban and burn the courage it takes to grapple with that which might leave you challenged, unsettled or changed. They fight for ignorance. So, it’s easy to see why they consider books dangerous.
If you’re not careful with them, you just might learn something.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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