Africana studies scholars host banned book ‘read-in’ to support U.S. educators

Brown community members read passages from “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, a novel banned in school libraries across multiple states, to show support for educators resisting a growing number of censorship efforts.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Scholars and leaders from Brown University took turns reading Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” to an audience of campus and local community members on Tuesday, May 2, as a show of support for teachers resisting book bans in classrooms and libraries across a growing number of U.S. states.

Inside the bright agora of Stephen Robert Hall, Brown faculty members, students, alumni and administrators read passages from the book, which follows a Black girl in Ohio who longs to have lighter skin and blue eyes because she equates whiteness with beauty. “The Bluest Eye” has been banned by multiple school districts across the country, as book bans and censorship have escalated in the 2022-23 school year.

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes,” reads one of the book’s most well-known passages.

The idea for the reading came to Noliwe Rooks and Matthew Guterl, both professors in Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, in the wee hours one February morning.

“We kept saying, ‘What did this book ever do to people?’” said Rooks, who is chair of the department. “What if we stood in support of the teachers who are being fired for trying to teach these kinds of works in these states — because we can?”

Rooks said both scholars tend to start their days early, often texting and tweeting back and forth at 4 or 5 a.m. And on one particular morning, Rooks recalled, she and Guterl were trading concerned notes about a growing movement in many states to censor stories about the long history of systemic racism in the U.S. 

That month, the College Board had released a revised Advanced Placement African American studies curriculum that was scrubbed of required units on mass incarceration, the debate over reparations and the Black Lives Matter movement, following claims from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that the proposed AP curriculum violated a state law that regulates how race is taught in schools. The change sparked anger among many educators across the U.S. who view those topics as crucial to the subject of Africana studies. (The College Board has since said it would again revise its plan for the new AP course.)

Then, Rooks said, she and Guterl watched as schools and libraries in more than a dozen states began to remove books from their shelves and ban teachers from including them in lesson plans. Many of the banned books explore themes of racism, gender identity and sexuality, she noted.

“We were just kind of going, ‘This is a little frightening; what is happening?’” Rooks said. “We saw the very legitimacy of Africana studies coming under attack. And we came upon the idea that we should hold a symbolic protest.”

We kept saying... What if we stood in support of the teachers who are being fired for trying to teach these kinds of works in these states — because we can?

Noliwe Rooks Professor of Africana Studies
Noliwe Rooks reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Rooks and Guterl settled on Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” because they noticed it was one of the  most commonly banned books — it’s recently been pulled from library shelves and classroom lesson plans in some school districts in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and half a dozen other states, according to an index compiled by the nonprofit organization PEN America.

Readers during the Brown event included Rooks, Guterl and other faculty in Africana studies; Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Sylvia Carey-Butler; Anthony Bogues, director of the Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice; Ph.D. students from Africana studies and other disciplines; and alumni such as Class of 1995 graduate Sylvia Ann Soares, a Providence-area actor who has appeared in multiple productions at Rites and Reason Theatre in the Department of Africana Studies.

University President Christina H. Paxson also took part in the read-in, less than two weeks after publishing a New York Times guest essay arguing that efforts to ban books and limit teaching of certain subjects are just as dangerous as the blacklisting campaigns of McCarthyism, efforts to outlaw teaching of evolution, and even dating back to imprisoning Galileo because he introduced new ideas about the universe.

Rooks noted that the read-in took place on the eve of the Freedom to Learn National Day of Action, a campaign designed to resist restrictions on education and defend equity in schools. Like that forthcoming day’s events, she said, the read-in was meant to confront those who would detract from the free flow of ideas in classrooms.

“It’s meant to name this moment, and these actions we’re seeing, as anti-democratic, anti-intellectual and anti-young people in many ways,” Rooks said. “If we don’t stand up, who will?”