How to Fight a Book Ban

Make sharing these books your mission.

Yesterday I received a package that has me feeling very emotional, indeed. It was a box of books from Amazon, purchased by Lyn, a friend I haven’t met face to face. I met her through my blog, and she often leaves such well thought out comments, full of insight and advice and encouragement and life experience, that I genuinely wish she’d write a blog herself. But yesterday she did something even better.

Let me start at the beginning. Recently, Lyn shared an article with me entitled, “Students fight back against a book ban that has a Pennsylvania community divided”.

This article was extremely upsetting. It is about a school board in York, Pennsylvania that has banned a list of books for an entire year, simply because there has been such a backlash against Critical Race Theory, which isn’t even taught in the K-12 curriculum in the first place. The only thing these books have in common are the fact that they are all by or about people of color.

It seems that some parents are supportive of this all-White school board’s decision because they don’t want their white children to grow up feeling guilty that they’re white. Therefore, they are thrilled that any books that remind children that there are other races, or that racism exists, are no longer obtainable in their schools.

This is outrageous and absurd. Those kids in York have a right to be exposed to the real, diverse, multicultural world in which we all live. And all the children, not just the white ones, should be allowed to be proud of who they are.

It is frustrating when a school board can’t even bother to be educated itself. I hope the community votes in a much different set of people at their earliest opportunity. If I had a child, I certainly wouldn’t want them in that school district, where they’re only taught a whitewashed version of the truth. I’d want them to learn all across the color spectrum.

Lyn and I shared our frustration and anger over this situation, and our feelings of helplessness about changing it. I genuinely assumed it would end there. I’d fire off yet another rant of a blog post about it, and that would be that. We are only two individuals, after all. How on earth could we make a difference?

But then Lyn thought of my little free library, with its purpose of getting books into the hands of people who need them and don’t otherwise have access to them. And right then and there she decided that she would buy some of these banned books and send them to me for my library.

I don’t live in York. I don’t even live in Pennsylvania. But this ignorance is spreading throughout the world. My mother used to say that the best way to fight against a book ban was to get that book any way you can and read it, and then share it with others. Any time she heard about a book being banned, I could count on a copy of that book making its way to me. My mother would make that her mission.

So I opened this package from Lyn yesterday, and I got tears in my eyes. I read all of the books today except the amazing Baldwin essays, which I have already read. And now I’m proud to say that these books are sitting in my little free library, just waiting for someone to come along and claim them. And when they do, they’ll include a copy of this blog post, so they’ll understand just how special and important these books are.

Sometimes activism can be very, very subtle, but it still makes a difference. This whole event, and the way Lyn chose to deal with her frustration, makes me very, very proud of her. And I’m also proud of me for being able to facilitate it.

Thanks Lyn! I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the banned books, I Am Enough by Grace Byers: “I know that I may sometimes cry, but even then, I’m here to try.”

If you would like to participate in our subtle activism, buy these books, print out this blog post, slip it inside the front cover, and then leave these books in the little free library nearest you. You can find a map of these libraries here.

*****Update***** This particular book ban is rescinded! More details here. But don’t get complacent. Books get banned all the time, all over the world.

Two Ben Vereen Controversies

He has shocked me twice. The first time wasn’t his fault.

I’ve always thought of Ben Vereen as an amazing and talented entertainer. He can sing and dance and act better than most human beings. I’ve always admired the man.

As Chicken George in Roots he brought me right there to that time and place. I loved him in the movie version of All That Jazz. I was thrilled to see him again when he appeared as Geordi La Forge’s father in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Vereen has always made me happy.

Well… not always.

The first time he shocked me wasn’t really his fault. I was watching Reagan’s inaugural gala in 1981. I was 16. My political morals hadn’t been fully formed yet. But when I saw Vereen perform in blackface, live, in front of a room of conservatives, singing “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”, I thought it was kind of weird. It was a homage to Bert Williams, an African American vaudeville entertainer who was not allowed to perform in many venues in the early 20th century unless he himself wore blackface.

According to this article in the New Yorker, what I, and the rest of America, didn’t know was that ABC had promised to air Vereen’s entire performance, when in fact they only showed us this first bit. So it looked like Vereen was being some weird Uncle Tom, shucking and jiving and mocking his people. And there was quite the backlash because of that. He received death threats. For many years, his career was sidelined.

If ABC had lived up to its promise to show the whole performance, it would have had an entirely different spin. Vereen, a liberal, does a shuck and jive blackface, gets applauded, acts delighted, and then pretends to ask a bartender to serve drinks to everyone to celebrate their victory. But the bartender refuses him. He says, “Sometimes I forgets my place.” And then, as he slowly removes his blackface, he sings another song that was often performed by Bert Williams called Nobody. One of the lines is “I ain’t never got nothing from nobody.”

Ben Vereen’s performance was actually meant to be an indictment of republican policies on civil rights. He risked his entire career to do it, and it blew up in his face. I did eventually see his complete performance, but I can’t remember where, and if you look all over the internet for the footage, you won’t find it. It’s very frustrating.

In 2015, the story of that debacle was made into a play entitled, “Until, Until, Until”. Ironically, it was also performed on the day Trump was inaugurated, but not at his gala. Definitely not. The play was later turned into an art installation.

And yet the majority of us still don’t know this story. This is just one of a million reasons why we need Critical Race Theory in our schools. If children of color are old enough to experience racism every day, it wouldn’t kill us if white children had to learn about it.

In this case, Vereen got a very raw deal. No doubt about it. It wasn’t fair.

I wish I could end the story right there, but life does tend to be a bit more complex than that. The second time Ben Vereen shocked me was entirely his fault. Unfortunately, this incident makes me think rather less of him.

Something came out about Vereen during the Me Too movement (a movement which should also be taught in schools, if you ask me). Four actresses claim to have been sexually harassed by Vereen when he was directing a production of the musical Hair back in 2015.

According to Wikipedia, he “forced unwanted kisses, hugged them aggressively, stripped naked during an acting exercise and made degrading comments about their weight, sex appeal, and personal lives.” He also goaded these women into sex acts. He has apologized, but still, this is not okay. Not even a little bit.

So, yeah, I have mixed emotions about Ben Vereen now. His behavior doesn’t match his brand. And this makes me sad. But I can’t long for more innocent times. They’re gone. I can wish that an unjustly accused gala performance be set right, but at the same time I can’t turn a blind eye to bad behavior.

We’re living in a complex world, indeed.

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