Syreeta McFadden – The Unreachable Shelf: On Arizona’s Book Banning

A thought game, if you will: If the Tuscon United School District ‘bans’ The Tempest, Like Water For Chocolate, Drown, Savage Inequalities… from the classroom, because the teaching of these books “promotes divisiveness and hostility between races/groups,” what books would be the antithesis? If you held the worldview that these titles somehow do harm, what would the exact opposite look like?

In 2010, the Arizona State Legislature passed a law prohibiting ethnic studies programs in Arizona Public Schools. Late last December, an Administrative Court Judge upheld the new law, stating the ethnic studies program in the public schools “promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” ruling continual administration of the program unlawful. Earlier this month, State Superintendent John Huppenthal issued an order stating that 10% of the TUSD funds—a total of about $5 million—would be withdrawn retroactively. On January 12th, officials confiscated books from classrooms featuring the works of Latino authors, effectively dissolving the Mexican American Studies program. Some works that will no longer be part of the curriculum include Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (The Tempest? Seriously? This is why we can’t have nice things.)

These books supposedly promote divisiveness and breed racial resentment—a curious proposition in denying a narrative, or relate an experience that differs from that of white European descendants in the Americas. The books are purported to be available within the school’s public library system—meaning the books aren’t exactly banned—they’re just made available in way that is not quite as accessible to students as they were when they were physically in the classroom. In the classroom, these titles are introduced by instructors informed enough to guide a conversation that would promote discovery and growth that a student wouldn’t otherwise necessarily experience with independent study or research. Doesn’t removing these titles from the classroom do more harm than good?

Alternatively, I’m not sure what one could teach in the classroom that would be in compliance with the new law. The inherent racism of the law notwithstanding, it’s a far more insidious law if you dig deeper. Well perhaps, better stated, the enforcement of the law is far more insidious and truly hits to the heart: censorship. In a Huffington Post interview, TUSD teacher tells writer Jeff Biggers:

‘Due to the madness of this situation and our fragile positions as instructors who will be frequently observed for compliance, and be asked to produce examples of student work as proof of our compliance, I cannot disagree with their advice. Now we are in the position of having to rule out The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, etc. for the exact same reason.’

If you can’t teach The Tempest because discussions around class, oppression, colonization, and power emerge, how can you possibly teach The Great Gatsby? Or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Crucible? These are recognizable titles included in recommended reading lists to prep high school students for college. Gone With The Wind, perhaps? The Help? How would an instructor steer student discussion to circumvent the dangerous topics of race and class? Class and gender? How do you re-imagine stories like The Help or To Kill A Mockingbird without considering the socioeconomic structure that inspired them? What titles can a teacher assign to students in order to teach them about an American curriculum of literature and history that has always promoted unity first and foremost?

I find myself returning to Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk from 2009, where she explores the subtle violence in harboring a single story and the importance of embracing multiple narratives. Adichie quotes Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti “[I]f you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

The narrative of the American people is complex. Our multitudes are paradoxes. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He owned slaves. One of them was his mistress. Sally Hemmings’ story is inextricable from Jefferson’s story. It is as an American as apple pie.

Huppenthal’s position on the ethnic studies programs in the 61% majority Latino school district, the largest school district in Arizona, looks to be another case of wedge politics surrounded in the vapid rhetoric of reverse racism. The ‘ban’ as it seeks to curb racial resentment only seems to work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Alternatively, if you want to educate the future about the narrative of America, why would you seek to privilege one story over the other? We were never a single people. Some of us were born here, some of us were brought here and some of us chose to come here. But we’re here. And we’re not going anywhere.

What do we want? The freedom to tell our varied, fractured, painful, and beautiful narratives, and perhaps in that awkward meeting place, we can become one people.


Syreeta McFadden is a Brooklyn-based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Religion Dispatches and others. She is a member of the louderARTS Project and is an editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station. She is currently writing a book of undetermined size and scope.