A suburban Alabama school district has raised the ire of residents after unceremoniously canceling a reading by an award-winning Black children’s book author—during Black History Month.
Using excuse after excuse, famed author Derrick Barnes was told by Hoover City Schools district superintendent, Dee Fowler, that between contract issues and a parent’s worry over Barnes’ “controversial ideas” in his social media posts, he was no longer welcome in the district, CNN reports.
A National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestseller, Barnes’ books are known for featuring historical Black figures, as well as everyday Black girls and boys facing everyday challenges.
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According to CNN, several outraged parents, teachers, and Hoover residents rallied their frustration into action and came together to raise some of the money Barnes was supposed to have been paid for his appearance and reading.
“We are a transracial family, so when we found out Derrick Barnes was coming, we immediately cleared our schedule, asked the librarian if family can come, it was a very exciting, well-known event. It’s a rare opportunity for your child to get in a public school, so losing that was disappointing, hurtful, and frustrating,” Ashley Dorough, whose son is Black, told CNN.
Dorough added, “At the beginning, there was so much anger, and we were all asking, ‘Why, why, why?’” she said. “I realized we can no longer be angry or just move on with our lives We had to take that energy and put it into something good.”
But it wasn’t just parents who launched into action. Hoover educators also chimed in.
“We all teach children who would benefit from the opportunity of meeting an author who looks like them and shares their cultural background and is a role model for them,” Kent Haines, a math teacher at Simmons Middle School, told AL.com. “This was such a great one of those opportunities that we’ve now lost.”
In a letter sent to the school district, Haines and another Hoover teacher, Reed Lochamy, wrote, “We find ourselves greatly concerned that the district’s decisions in this matter were not prudent and that the communication with the stakeholders in our community about the cancellations lacked forthrightness and transparency.”
Fowler has insisted the issue isn’t about book banning, although in 2021, the state’s school board passed a resolution titled “Declaring the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom and Non-Discrimination in Alabama’s Public Schools,” which very much reads like a devout anti-critical race theory measure.
The resolution reads in part that it prohibits “each local board of education from offering K-12 instruction intended to indoctrinate students in social or political ideologies that promote one race or sex above another.”
The Legal Defense Fund describes the resolution as something that “prevents educators from teaching the full and accurate history of racial discrimination and civil rights in Alabama and the United States.”
For his part, Barnes denies ever being told anything about a worrying social media post.
“I wasn’t told anything about a parental complaint. My socials are all about my books, events, children, and of course, I talk about Black history facts and things happening in the world, but everything is factual,” he said.
As for the questions about Barnes’ contract, Fowler claims that Barnes’ agent, Patrick Oliver, did not send it to her office. Oliver tells CNN that is a lie.
“The contract statement is an excuse the Hoover School District wants to hide behind for their horrible and unpopular decision… Several emails confirmed Derrick’s appearance. I requested a $500 advance for Derrick’s travel, and the check was received within seven days, a sign that an agreement was in place for Derrick’s appearance,” Oliver said.
Barnes, 47, and the father of four sons, says his work centers on creating positive role models for Black children.
“If you’re a Black artist in America, by default, you’re an activist. I have an obligation to make sure if they can’t find images that portray them as human beings, I will make sure to do it myself,” Barnes told CNN.
“I write my books, so when Black children pick them up, they don’t want to put it down because they see themselves. It’s a mirror. They see it and think, ‘This is who I am, I’m someone with astronomical goals. I love myself. I love my skin. I love my hair. I love my family. I love my neighborhood,’” Barnes says.
He adds that it isn’t just Black children who need to see characters who look like them; it’s white children who need to see the faces of characters who don’t look like them.
“It’s even more important for white children to see Black, Brown, Asian, and Muslim characters. If they don’t see those kids in their immediate environments, these books serve to counter stereotypes they’re taught,” Barnes said. “They get to learn about different cultures while also seeing the similarities, how we live, how we dream, the things we all fear, the things that bring us joy. But they won’t realize this if they only see themselves.”
The topic of book banning has come front and center of late—most recognizably by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
According to reporting from Popular Information, principals in Manatee County, Florida, were told in mid-January that teachers must secure “unvetted” books in their classroom libraries or face felony prosecution just a week before the start of the state’s annual Literacy Week.
Teachers must hide or cover the books until a librarian—aka a “media specialist”—approves them.
The policy relates to Republican fascist Gov. Ron DeSantis’ infamous “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which was signed into law in March 2022.
According to the law:
“Each book made available to students through a school district library media center or included in a recommended or assigned school or grade-level reading list must be selected by a school district employee who holds a valid educational media specialist certificate, regardless of whether the book is purchased, donated, or otherwise made available to students.”
Now, teachers in Manatee are opting to pack up their libraries or hide them from students.
But it’s not just Florida, where book banning is on the front lines of the culture war. In Virginia in 2021, co-founder of the “Wokeness Checker” website, Virginia Beach at-large school board member Victoria Manning was on a mission to remove books she deemed “pornographic”
First on Manning’s list is author and Nobel Laureate in Literature Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, alongside Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, and the memoir comic Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.
Listen to this episode of The Downballot for an in-depth analysis of the 2024 Arizona Senate race and the implications of Kyrsten Sinema's re-election decision. Special guest Victoria McGroary, the Executive Director of BOLD PAC, will also discuss the efforts to prevent losses among Hispanic voters and the fight against disinformation in Spanish language media.