The present is not good … Politically it’s horrible …
All the hawks are screaming …
—Toni Morrison, from a 2015 interview
As suggested in my last op-ed and implied in the epigraph for this one, it is, now, a time for urgency. There is a strategy in play, attempts throughout the United States, to ban books and subject matter in schools, what PEN America has called a “legislative war on education.” At the heart of this war are educational gag orders—“state legislative attempts to restrict teaching, training and learning” at all levels: elementary, secondary and postsecondary. Since January 2021, around 200 such bills have been proposed, with 19 now enshrined in law in 15 states. Most target teaching and learning about topics related to race and, increasingly, gender and sexuality. While most target K-12 education, an increasing number concern colleges and universities.
This “war” began earlier, but it feels like it all started with the report of a few infamous nightmares. Recently elected Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, who incidentally tops the list of the nation’s wealthiest state leaders, had featured one Laura Murphy in a campaign advertisement. Murphy’s son Blake—who grew up to be a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee—had been assigned to read Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved almost a decade ago when still a high school student. According to his mother, it caused Blake to have traumatizing nightmares; she complained to The Washington Post in 2013, “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.” (Know that this claim is misleading at best: there is no bestiality in the novel, only a passing reference to sexless men having sex with livestock while dreaming of sex with humans—nothing explicit, no scene or occurrence, the kind of reference that is commonplace in any realistic depiction of historical situations in which sexual activity was restricted.) Murphy decided, and numerous Virginia politicians agreed, that the novel should be removed from school curricula—or, at least, that parents should have a say over what their kids read in school. That parents have rights, in other words, to determine the content of a formal education, even if they have no expertise in the censored subject matter. In 2016, the first Virginia “Beloved Bill” passed; it was later vetoed by then governor Terry McAuliffe. After Youngkin’s ascension to the gubernatorial seat last January, he immediately advanced a quite similar bill giving parents the right to (p)review—and reject, on behalf of their children—any “sexually explicit” instructional material. Youngkin signed Senate Bill 656 into law in April.
Efforts, successful ones, such as these, to dramatically shrink, surveil and manipulate the content of education in America must be the single gravest matter facing education today. We, the people, need to get serious about this. To be urgent, in fact. Here, I explain my push for urgency and action, and I complicate and expand the understanding of what this is truly about. I offer a corrective—the primary purpose of my response—in asserting that, though generally framed as a matter of either parents’ rights or of academic freedom, the educational gag orders being vociferously pursued today are equally, urgently and also centrally a students’ rights issue.
In this instance of deciding that something happening in the world was crucial enough for me to bare my private voice and aspects of my private life to a (sometimes cruel) public readership, I do not speak (chiefly) as a faculty member. Yes, I am a university professor, but before that, like every teacher, I was a student. And I speak, here, first as the student I was, second as the parent of two former students and, yes, as the teacher I have been since the year 2000. Therefore, though this piece is directed to my faculty colleagues, I also address our students. I particularly address Blake Murphy. I address Laura Murphy, a concerned parent like me. I address Glenn Youngkin, once a student himself, now wielding power and influence over every Virginia student. I address my own students, present and former, and the students of America at large. That is, the learners whose learning is being debilitated by gag orders aimed at gutting what they can read, learn and know, the individuals all this is ostensibly “for” and who are purportedly “protected” by having their minds gagged.
I. Roots; or, “The truth will set you free, but first, it will piss you off”
When, in 1977, the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots premiered on network TV, I watched in rapt if also horrified attention. Roots is both a dramatization of Haley’s family history and a depiction of chattel slavery as that economic labor system existed in America during colonial times and following the Revolution that established a new republic. Afterward, for the first time, I was enraged about my education. I was 16 and in the 11th year of it, a junior in high school who had learned nothing of this. I was not prepared by my education for what I was to learn from Alex Haley about the place I call home. And I started haranguing my father: Why had I not been taught slavery—the trade in human life and breath and sweat and bloodletting so important to this nation’s history, to the building and thriving of America? “But Dad,” I protested, “I have a right to know!” Why, I asked furiously, had my acclaimed and rather costly private secondary education taught me none of that? Why hadn’t I learned the brutal ways enslaved women had been serially and sexually used and abused? Why didn’t I know that there were laws governing how and in what circumstances a slave could be physically dismembered or maimed?
Little known is the fact that slave law included such provisions, grotesquely cruel codes, varying from colony to colony or (later) state to state, for cutting off ears, feet or hands, for governing the hanging of enslaved Americans. Would that be too explicit for troubled parent Laura Murphy, or other parents involved in the movement to censor not only their own children’s knowledge but that of any student child? Those details constitute both truth and fact. Thus, to erase them from the educational narrative is at a minimum dishonest and at the maximum a serious disservice to student interests and to knowledge itself.
Yes, Roots gave me nightmares. And, after poring over every episode, after protesting in the general direction of my well-meaning father, I conducted extensive research, at my high school library and at the public library—a system founded, incidentally, by founding father Ben Franklin. Already well trained by the Sisters of Loretto in the art of proper research, I knew Roots was only a start. Roots isn’t “history.” It’s historical fiction; it’s broad outlines. (Often this is, however, the kind of place where true learning commences.) We didn’t have databases in the ’70s, so I’m talking books with actual pages, archived copies of newspapers, magazines, journals, microfiche of various primary sources or issues of The New York Times from the time of slavery, the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Now, more questions loomed, many more. Why didn’t I know that it was George Washington who signed the first fugitive slave law, the initial iteration of the codes that kept Margaret Garner, the enslaved mother on whom Toni Morrison’s Beloved is based, from reaching freedom? Because of them, in order to secure her children’s freedom, she’d have had to make it across the Canadian border and not merely to Ohio, which is as far as she and her family got. Why had I learned only that George Washington was considered a “great” man, that same man who took great pains figuring out, with his wife, how to sneakily circumvent the Pennsylvania state laws that, long before abolition, had required the freeing of slaves under certain conditions?
Yes, my further research gave me even more nightmares. Dreams and ponderings I needed to have, precious knowledge I would not trade for anything. Besides, worse by far was the burning anger now living in my gut. I had been robbed. Lied to. Hoodwinked by an education system that alarmingly slanted what it taught me about the “founding fathers”—a phrase I don’t generally use unless, as now, it functions as a workable shorthand—but bothered to share nothing of an actually great woman by the name of Ona Judge, a young woman enslaved by George and Martha Washington. At age 22, Ona miraculously escaped the grip of their bondage, never to be seen by her captors again—and all that despite the sad, sickening fact that George Washington spent the rest of his natural life hunting her down. He failed.
The fire that had taken up residence in me was fierce. That my father and not without struggle, was sending us—three brothers, two sisters and me—to some of St. Louis’s finest private Roman Catholic secondary schools appeared now a travesty of educational justice. In teaching us the so-called true history of the place we come from, none had learned—not one small thing—about the system of imperialist savagery on which this land was constructed, the system that would continue through to the formation of a democratic republic where all were, under the law, equal … right?
Ironically and perhaps different from my brothers, who attended a more traditional Jesuit school, I was poised, educationally, to learn the silenced subject. In my all-girls high school, we smugly boasted that our nuns were actually cool. They participated in feminist rallies. They didn’t teach us basket weavery or home ec; they taught us “real” things, the things boys learned in their schools. Taught us what we needed to know as women of this world who planned, like Rihanna, to “Run This Town.” My nuns were so unusual they devised, then implemented, a plan to racially integrate the school, which caused enrollments to plummet and me to love them with abandon. Racial integration in American school systems was a thing Americans needed to be urgent about in the ’70s, but it was also something virtually none of the local private or parochial schools participated in. None except mine.
Still—even with all that—the Sisters of Loretto didn’t teach us slavery. Perhaps, Sister Nancy reasoned, it was too harrowing for our young minds. Perhaps Sister Mary felt there were more pressing, more contemporary matters calling for attention—the things we read about in her expository writing class: the Vietnam War, only just then ended, or the deployment of weapons of mass destruction by the United States against the people of Japan in World War II. Certainly Sister Paul—who loved calling us “sinners!”—would have demanded the inclusion of the slavery curriculum that was my regretted loss.
However, I suspect that, for all that, it was none of that. I suspect that that conversation among nuns never happened. Rather, I suspect it was the problem we learn about by reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved: that slavery constitutes a substantial share of the great American silence. There was no law censoring what my nuns could teach; the omission was a specific effect of the cultural and social silences that pervade American cultural and social life, the things considered unspeakable or unreadable, which many Americans would rather not know about, would rather not talk about: what enslavement really meant and really looked like and really did to people.
And—again, what I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki—more nightmares. The Vietnam War, still more, as my family huddled in my dad’s study to watch the reportage on TV night after night along with the rest of America. But let’s fast-forward now, to a few years later, when I became a young mother and, in a few more years, a single mom. Naturally, my proclivities as the parent of students would be influenced by my student experiences. Always my first thought was to ensure my children were educated in the art of critical thinking as I had been. As a parent, I wanted my kids to study without restriction, to know what(ever) they wished. Isn’t this our children’s right, their prerogative to learn and, as I had done, to critique what they learned or did not learn? Less concerned with math than my dad was, I wanted my kids’ classrooms to make them think, to inspire reason as well as awe and wonder. To play on Socrates’ assertion that an “unexamined life is not worth living”—isn’t this another way of articulating the very point of especially secondary and postsecondary education? Isn’t that what is most necessary to a life well lived? And isn’t that why education is a publicly funded civil right in America?
Part of the reason my right to academic freedom as a City University of New York professor is so vital in my mind (and in fact) is the specific effect of my secondary school experiences. I still feel robbed. But also, I did not want those critical erasures reiterated in my children’s lives as students owing to my own well-meant but perhaps unwittingly poor choices. I tried to find schools that would provide a rounded, thorough, rigorous education. Additionally, though I was not a teacher then, I doubled down on the critical thinking they did at school. As many parents do, I self-consciously brought into daily life opportunities to reflect on and think complex questions through, as my nuns had taught me to do. Some families achieve this through things like travel, but as a single mother, I couldn’t afford airfare for three, suitable accommodation and the rest. So we visited and discussed the holdings at the Barnes Foundation, we broke down the independent films we’d seen at County Theater—my son, now 42, still remembers seeing Au revoir les enfants when he was 7; my daughter would watch My Life as a Dog as a “thing,” on sick days or snow days. There was the two-hour discussion following Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour adaptation of Hamlet. The one following the neighborhood fair we attended and to which, surprising everyone, McCoy Tyner showed up to play a brilliant solo show. It cost me five bucks a head and, bonus, we got seats so close to him we could hear him humming along with the piano keys.
It was important to be perplexed by thought-provoking films, to have the nightmares Hamlet might cause, important to know about McCoy’s life in jazz and about the unique racial history of Mount Airy, the neighborhood in Philly he was from and where we attended a neighborhood fête we’ll never forget. This was about conveying to my children, through more than words, that even if we could not travel the world, the world was theirs—theirs to engage, to interpret, to know—theirs to enter as the millennials they are and not as whoever I, a junior boomer, might have envisioned them becoming. This was all true, I insisted, despite that their single mother was often flat broke, despite that they were the kids who, because I was divorced, were alienated and scorned in the Catholic school they attended but not in the Jewish one and not the publics.
It was definitely my right, as a parent, to bring my children into contact and commiseration with the exposures and experiences outlined. But was it definitely my right to censor their education on their supposed behalf? Is that a parental “right”? Especially in secondary and postsecondary educational contexts, when our children students are teenagers and young adults? Doesn’t our children’s education belong to them? And if it does, do we have the right to steal it, or any part of it, from them? My children would have been deeply offended had I endeavored to restrict what they could learn, read or know. They’d have swiftly reminded me that I’m supposed to trust them, to understand that they are, firstly, their own persons and, secondly, persons fully capable of thinking through and ultimately judging whatever comes their way. Yes, even if it gives them nightmares.
II. Roots; or, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root …”
Whether knowledge is garnered in or outside school, students simply have a right to it. The right to know in a way that is unfettered, in a way unlike the manner by which, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s speaker tries to enter a library but is barred entry. She symbolizes the ways women were (and sometimes still are) kept from knowledge, gag-order banned from the knowledge they needed and had the right to know.
The thing we must be urgent about, today, is precisely that: protecting Virginia’s right, guaranteeing the right of all students of all genders to enter the library and access all it knows. This means not just keeping the library stacks intact but also blocking the removal of Toni Morrison from my syllabus. There’s hardly anything as important to me as a teacher than the “freedom” I hold to share Morrison’s work—and that of many authors—to use it as a vehicle to understand the world through the indirect route artists create by means of the things they say, picture, or put on stage. Beloved in particular makes a “problem” in the classroom, that precious problem a formal or any meaningful education is designed to produce: it functions as a facsimile for the riddles, realities, structures and systems students will face as they negotiate and try get a reasonable foothold in a nation, nay, on a planet, premised on competition. Or, to play on Langston Hughes, premised on “grabbing”—like the way labor and the production of goods were grabbed, wrested, stolen but not earned under slavery by participating proprietors:
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
—Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”
The books students most need to read, know and deliberate on are by writers like Hughes—and George Orwell and Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Shakespeare and Paul Celan and Virginia Woolf and alas, Salman Rushdie—authors who hold our hands, metaphorically and, by dint of their astonishing storytelling or versifying or musical gifts, walk us through forests of political worlds, take us on mimetic magic carpet rides through history, make us think as we read, as we discuss them in classrooms and as we write about them for a grade.
However, the reasons all this is urgent extend beyond classrooms and syllabi. There is a feed, a bleed outward. To recognize how this is so, one need only look at a recent survey conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which revealed, shockingly, that almost half of their female students experience sexual assault on campus at some point prior to graduation. Consider likewise the state of affairs at Michigan State University, still roiling in the aftermath of the nightmare-provoking Larry Nassar case. All this, which as one North Carolina commentator says is a “microcosm of our larger society,” the reality of the sexual abuse of female students across campuses, including, I’ll just say it, my own—these are object lessons in how literally byzantine and downright thorny it can be to foist an institution out of long-established “traditions” of sexist or racist abuse and into cultures of equity, belonging and genuine safety for (female) students.
What was it, in other words, that permitted the young women abominably abused by Nassar to stand up for their rights? To bravely and very publicly testify to the fact that their bodies belong to them and that some of the people in close proximity to them failed to “know,” to respect this? (They’ve since received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award.) Isn’t it because they believed rightly that Nassar’s crime was not just speakable but that it was proper abuse, a serious wrong—different perhaps from women and girls of previous epochs who were often taught that that kinda stuff “just happens” to women? More than likely, too, and more to the point, they’d learned about racial and gender politics in school, thus understanding that Nassar was the beneficiary of white and male privilege, a man who clearly counted on the fact—perhaps because there was so much historical precedent for it—that he’d never suffer a single consequence for the violence he committed against the bodies and selves of more than 250 women.
He was wrong. But why was he wrong? Why was this predator who hurts women made to face the music? I am here to testify that this outcome is beautifully and brilliantly and crucially tangled up with the rise of gender studies and feminist theory and the critique of privilege in the university, with work done by associated scholars since the 1970s. And it’s urgent that we work together, now, to ensure the safety of our daughters—at UNC, at Michigan State, at CUNY, at work, at home—by ensuring that the scholarship on race, on gender, on sexuality and on all of American history—including slavery—remain in curricula and on syllabi.
It’s, well, urgent that we keep Toni Morrison from becoming the latest name on the long and storied list of the missing females of (literary) history. It goes all the way back to Sappho (610–570 B.C.), whose poems represented a threat to heteronormativity and the cisgender typecasting of humanity and were therefore censored. The list includes Mexican nun and author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1651–1695), a woman called “the first feminist of the Americas,” whose writings were recently safeguarded when the Spanish government claimed them as items of “national historical heritage.” Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) is also there, a noted political philosopher, feminist and mother to the brilliant Mary Shelley (1797–1851). Eliza Haywood (ca. 1693–1756) appears there, too, one of the inventors of the modern novel whom no one knew or read until feminist scholars republished her starting in the 1970s and 1980s. Also there is Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whom virtually no one had heard of or read, either, until Their Eyes Were Watching God was rediscovered in 1978. Now, it’s on the BBC’s list of 100 of the most influential novels in the entire history of the novel.
Beloved made that BBC list, too. It also made the American Library Association’s list of the top 100 most banned and challenged books, 2010–2019.
III. Roots; or, “On the Poverty of Student Life”
And now I’ll see your gag order and raise you one flaming Constitution. Because the thing we need to be urgent about doesn’t end with those 137 educational gag order bills introduced in the last 11 or so months. That game is also being played at the constitutional level through state efforts to call a constitutional convention to limit federal powers, such as they are and “gut environmental regulations and education standards.” In a shocking 19 states, the Convention of States resolution that would make that possible has already passed.
The linked concern being this: censorship has no perceptible or actual horizon, which the world witnessed dramatically and tragically in the recent public stabbing of Rushdie. Once you start, you just can’t stop. And why bother? Why not actually manifest the uneducated and stealthily yet comprehensively controlled society Orwell cautioned us about in his 1949 masterpiece 1984? Why not send bona fide journalism up in flames along with the Constitution? And once you’ve done all that, what’s possible any longer in the realm of the creative? The creative, which includes medical science, all the sciences, my father’s beloved math and all of the arts and letters. What will be left to know, to read, to ponder? Will the theaters be open? The art film houses I used to take my kids to? Both performance art worlds are notorious, like Biggie, for committed critical engagements with politics and history. So why not just shut and shutter them, as happened in 17th-century England and elsewhere at other times?
Ultimately, the gag order movement envisions an Orwellian society; seeks to eradicate any recognition of race and racism from education; to erase gender, sexuality and women’s studies from curricula; to address only the facts, formulas and scientific specimen of STEM while leaving critical, historical and creative thinking entirely behind. It aims to create precisely a “poverty of student life”—to borrow the name of a pamphlet published by students at France’s University of Strasbourg that helped spark worldwide student movements in 1968. Those students changed the world. Rather—they made the world a better place for education.
And now, we need the students of the 21st century to join the fray. To be in this with us in order, finally, to guarantee that they will be properly, democratically and fully educated in the future. And so—being, now, not just urgent but explicit like a hip-hop lyric: the publication you now read is me, throwing down a gauntlet, issuing a call to students and teachers everywhere to join this struggle, to work with faculty like me, with PEN America and the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union, all currently toeing the line in defense of students’ right to know and teachers’ right to teach.
Like those involved in strikes now at University of California and the New School, will we be menaces to society, working together to stop the push to politically whitewash and downright disembowel education in American high schools and universities? Will we stand for edicts that ban the teaching and learning of race, sexuality, women’s studies and slavery? As members of a democratic society and free nation, will we be incapacitated by the trampling of our rights and the ignorance being engineered for (that is, against) us?
After all, isn’t the freedom to know the foundation stone of freedom itself?
I think it is. And I suspect that second POTUS John Adams would second that emotion. He was a revolutionary and conscientious objector, a man who did not believe in slavery when nearly every other founding father did. He was a gauntlet hurler who, in my humble estimation, may actually have been the “great” man George Washington wasn’t. Were I able to pull a Midnight in Paris and travel to the time of John and Abigail Adams, I’m pretty sure I’d get the nod from him, from her, regarding this entire disquisition on the gutting and gagging of education in today’s United States. For it is he who wrote these words in defense of students’ rights:
Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a flowing …
Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge.
Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.
Words penned without a doubt on behalf of the American student, then and now. Let us dare, indeed. Let us be brave, actually, like a gymnast standing up for her young self in public court. Brave enough to give ourselves the nightmares our shared American history mandates. And, after that, let us husband the courage to talk, together, about those dreams—of power, poverty and privilege, of liberty and of the loss of liberty—with honesty and care, with thoroughness and with all the fellow-feeling we can muster in this work. For this—it is the work of our (American) lives.