OPINION: Empty the libraries and you hide evidence of historical crimes. DeSantis and his minions want to erase Black people from the historical record and deprive people of that knowledge so the crimes can continue.

by David A. Love  |  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an election night watch party at the Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, on November 8, 2022. (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

As we celebrate a Black History Month like no other, people are now faced with the reality that in places like Florida, books that discuss Black history or even mention Black people are now illegal.

Doing his best impression of a white segregationist from the 1950s South, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a war on books that may cause white tears — topics such as race, gender, sexuality, LGBTQ+ people, class, oppression and social justice. Under Florida’s Stop Woke Act, teachers cannot discuss these topics in class under the threat of felony charges, forcing them to remove books on these subjects.     

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And Duval County — where Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city, is located — is at the center of the war on books, as the journalist Benjamin Dixon breaks down in a recent podcast. In an effort to avoid criminal prosecution, county officials have removed at least 176 books, according to PEN America. These books have been pulled from the shelves so they can be “evaluated by a media specialist” trained by the Florida Department of Education. But we know this will never happen and these books will be forever removed from the shelves.

What is stunning is the sheer number of books that are prohibited for simply mentioning race, racism or Black people.

Among these banned books is “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates” by Jonah Winter and Raúl Colón. The book chronicles the life of the legendary baseball player and his experiences with racism and community activism. Another banned book about a baseball legend is “Henry Aaron’s Dream,” a story on Hank Aaron written by Matt Tavares.

Also on the list is “Nya’s Long Walk: A Step at a Time,” by Linda Sue Park and Brian Pinkney, a children’s story about a Sudanese girl and her sister and their struggle to find water and bring it back to their family.

Before She Was Harriet,” by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome, tells the story of Harriet Tubman and the many roles she played, including liberator, Union spy and activist.

Sulwe,” by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison, is a children’s book about colorism and self-esteem. A dark-skinned Kenyan girl named Sulwe (which means “star”) wishes she has lighter skin like her sister until a magical journey changes her life and helps her see her beauty.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story,” by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal is a picture book about Native American identity, traditions, history and culture.

Other banned literature are “Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa,” by Veronica Chambers and Julie Maren, and “Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West,” by Lillian Schlissel. 

Books about Muslims and Jews have been shelved as well. For example, “The Gift of Ramadan” by Rabiah York Lumbard and Laura K. Horton examines the different ways a family observes the Muslim holiday Ramadan. And “Chik Chak Shabbat: Jewish Bedtime Stories and Songs” by Mara Rockliff and Kyrsten Brooker is a children’s storybook about people of diverse backgrounds celebrating a Jewish holiday.    

What is taking place in Florida is certainly reminiscent of authoritarian and fascist regimes such as Nazi Germany, which banned and burned books written by left-wing, liberal and Jewish authors viewed as dangerous, anti-fascist and against German values. The books were political, covering subjects such as race and sexuality. In 1933, 90 years ago, patriotic Nazi students conducted public book burnings. One of the first book burnings took place at a medical clinic providing gender-affirming care, echoing the current Republican anti-trans fixation. This, as the government raided bookstores, libraries and publishers.

Many German intellectuals fled the country as a result. As the Jewish poet Heinrich Heine said in 1822, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings, too.” And they did. And they will try to do it again.

However, one need not look to another country for the source of America’s book ban problem. After all, Nazi Germany reached out to the U.S. for guidance on the right way to do codified legal racism. The Nazis loved and learned from the Jim Crow laws and other American systems of white supremacy that oppressed Black people, Native Americans and other non-white groups.

DeSantis knows what he’s doing

Before Jim Crow, there were the Slave Codes, which propped up the plantation police state and strictly regulated Black movement and action. Among the laws that oppressed Black people and kept them in their place were the anti-literacy laws making it illegal for enslaved and free Black people to read and write, and to teach Black people such skills. These laws were a power move by enslavers who knew that knowledge is power and a tool of liberation. After all, it was better to shackle the arms, legs and minds of people to prevent their escape than allow melanated insurrection. Punishment for breaking the law ranged from fines to whippings and lashes — and even death.  

Southern states also banned and burned anti-slavery books and imprisoned people for owning copies of seditious pro-abolition literature such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  

Once the gatekeepers of white supremacy made “reading while Black” a crime. Now their descendants are making “reading about Black” a crime. This is part of the culture wars, to be sure. It started with attacks on “The 1619 Project” and critical race theory, vague and random attacks on “wokeness” — which is mere code for the N-word — and going after trans kids and drag shows.

But there is far more afoot here. We must consider why this is happening and why now. The quickness of all this book banning is something to behold.

Consider the harm inflicted upon marginalized and excluded communities when their children are not allowed to read narratives about themselves. And when white America denies these books to its children, it is committed to raising at best another generation of white people who lack empathy toward other people’s suffering. At worst, this new generation will view others as a threat and seek to eliminate them — which is the whole point.

Empty the libraries and you hide evidence of historical crimes. DeSantis and his minions want to erase Black people from the historical record and deprive people of knowledge of history so the crimes can continue.

America is in the midst of a white conservative backlash against multiracial democracy. White nationalists saw the power of the protests that took place after the murder of George Floyd when as many as 26 million people participated in the largest social protest movement in America. Millions of white folks — from young people to suburban mothers to lone protesters in small racist towns — were ready to change things. The reactionaries could not let that proceed, so they’re trying to turn back the clock. 

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It is no accident that DeSantis hired Christopher Rufo — the conservative activist behind the manufactured war on critical race theory — in a hostile right-wing takeover of New College. A liberal school in Sarasota, New College transformed the life of R. Derek Black, the heir-apparent to the white nationalist movement who renounced his white supremacist beliefs after attending the school.

Meanwhile, the small man Ron DeSantis — like his white nationalist cohorts in other neo-Jim Crow states such as Texas, Virginia and Tennessee — is banning Black books. We have read this story before, and we know how it ends. Should they succeed, they will ban Black people next, and soon.

The only saving grace is DeSantis may have unwittingly sparked a new racial justice movement, sowing the seeds of his own political demise.

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