BY STEVE NUZUM
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“Well anyone born here is a citizen with full rights. There are people who claim certain ‘injustices’ are race-related, but if you ask me, they’re just being divisive.”
A character delivers this line during a class debate in the third chapter of Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, a book which was challenged in Pickens County, South Carolina; after a review by the board, it was restricted to only students with advance parental permission.
The quote itself anticipates the attitude of the book’s challenger in Pickens, who cited its potential to create “racial divisiveness”.
Based on a Freedom of Information Act Request with Pickens Schools, there was only one complaint against Dear Martin, and that complaint aligns closely with the way a small number of individuals and groups have been challenging books like this throughout the state and throughout the country. (The other two books for which Pickens provided copies of challenge forms were The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Stamped, which are also commonly-challenged and included on lists used by book banners.)
Although the novel was published in 2017, the idea that the concept of systemic racism is “divisive” is one of the cornerstones of today’s book challenge legislation, regulations, and rhetoric. Moms for Liberty and related groups have created a well-funded political ecosystem in just a few years based on this idea, and it’s no coincidence that they continually challenge texts like Dear Martin that hold their ideas up for analysis or criticism.
Image of Dear Martin’s cover, from the author’s website.
The novel is a frequent target of book-banners, under this general premise that depicting racism in contemporary America is “divisive”. For example, it was banned from Columbia County schools in Georgia in 2019, based on a depiction of “racial tendencies as a negative attribute of society.” According to a post from the University of Chicago, the novel is one of the most frequently challenged in the United States.
Of course Dear Martin is not alone in being challenged because it has the audacity to suggest racism exists in American society. For example, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed book challenges in South Carolina’s Lexington School District 2 based on complaints alleging books like A Good Kind of Trouble might lead to “Racial divide, social justice distraction, BLM armbands, racial unrest, distraction from academics”. (One wonders if the author of that complaint is aware that wearing political armbands at school is a right the Supreme Court has specifically upheld for students since 1969; it was in that year that the famous Tinker v Des Moines case was settled, with the ruling featuring the classic pronouncement that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”)
Every one of the Lexington 2 challenges was made by members of a group called PACE for Lexington 2, which has generally enacted the Moms 4 Liberty playbook: endorsing candidates, reading graphic passages from books in front of children, then complaining about being censored (for sharing passages in front of small children which they maintain shouldn’t be available even to seniors in high school), and bringing challenges that focus mostly on the handful of books that are being heavily targeted across the country.
Even a cursory review of book challenges in Pickens, Lexington, and other parts of South Carolina over the past several years reveals that most of the challenged books deal with race and/ or LGBTQ+ issues, and feature characters of color, transgender characters, or gay characters.
While the most common talking point on the part of book challengers is that challenged books are “pornographic” or “obscene,” there is no explicit sexual content in Dear Martin or Stamped (and none in some other noteworthy books dealing with race that have also been challenged, like Between the World and Me).
What these three books have in common, instead, is their focus on historical and ongoing systemic injustices against people of color, and several of the complaints against Stamped in Pickens explicitly target this content, while also claiming that the book “indoctrinates” students into “Marxism”. One complainant claimed lawmakers who wrote SC’s Budget Proviso 1.93 were explicitly targeting the book Stamped when they wrote the proviso. (I tend to believe her, because in conversations with Adam Morgan, Chair of the SC House Freedom Caucus, I’ve seen him walk pretty close to that argument, though the proviso definitively does not prohibit either “CRT” or any specific book, and Pickens Schools’ rebuttals to the complaints against Stamped, including in the FOIA request, do a pretty good job of demonstrating that a teacher’s use of the book did not violate the Proviso as written.)
Later in the Dear Martin, protagonist Justyce tells his friend SJ, “It’s a conundrum: white people hold most positions of authority in this country. How do I deal with the fact that I DO need them to get ahead without feeling like I’m turning my back on my own people?”
It’s not hard to see why the book would trigger the same movement that seems to have produced another complaint in Lexington 2 about Me and White Supremacy. That complaint states, “This book supports the Critical Race Theory premise that our society is made up of formal & informal systems that elevate white people and denegrate [sic] people of color”.
This reality, that white people hold most of the power in America, is easily provable. Non-Hispanic White people make up less than 60% of America, but 76% of Congress. Very few people on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans are non-white. The US has had only one non-white president in its history. The majority of characters in children’s media are white.
Legitimate arguments can be made about why this is happening, what it means, or what to do about it, but it is absurd to argue that the system is not tilted toward white people in America.
Yet book-banners continue to argue that pointing out systemic racism is racism. (In fact, this is a central part of “the Mantra,” a list of talking points originated by white nationalist Robert Whittaker.)
But perhaps a more practical reason for the challenge against Dear Martin is that the novel is one of the books featured on BookLooks, a kind of Yelp review site for amateur censors that allows folks to challenge books without the hassle of having to actually read them.
In Pickens, the person who challenged Dear Martin wrote, in answer to a question about what where continuing to use the book might lead, “Normalizes disrepectful [sic] speech among teenagers,drug and alcohol abuse,violence against each other, violence against police, racial stereotyping/divisive”. This sounds pretty close to the BookLooks summary, which reads, “This book contains profanity; racism; controversial racial and social commentary; and alcohol use involving minors.”
Importantly, Dear Martin does not contain any violence against the police, and although it includes a fight between two students, some “disrespectful language” among teenagers (gasp!), and examples of racism, these are hardly foreign life events to the average high school student, and the depiction of racism in everyday life is especially important if students of color are to feel represented by the books available in school.
Importantly, the challenger in Pickens suggested To Kill a Mockingbird as an alternative text, a book that contains intense racism, racial slurs, and discussions of sexual violence (as well as plenty of “disrespectful language”), but which is, significantly, told entirely from the point of view of White characters. (The challenger of Stamped also suggests To Kill a Mockingbird as an alternative text.)
In Lexington 2, all but three of the fourteen challenges made available from the FOIA request were from BookLooks (17 more challenges were shared, but the district has not yet updated the sharing rights on the documents, so they are inaccessible as of this writing) . Most of the examples cited in the complaint about A Good Kind of Trouble coincide with the list of examples— with page numbers— from BookLooks. (The author of a complaint against Rise Up!: How You Can Join the Fight Against White Supremacy was at least honest enough to say, “I didn’t read much further than the introduction for the author to reveal her purpose, motives, and activism.”)
Is Dear Martin aimed at fomenting racial division? I think if you’ve read it, and not just a BookLooks summary, you would have a hard time saying that it does.
As the father of Justyce’s friend Manny tells the boys, “There’s no predicting people’s actions, but you can be prepared to face certain attitudes.” This is representative of Dear Martin’s overall approach to racial issues: through dialogue.
In one of Justyce’s classes, students engage in regular debates which represent an obvious microcosm of American culture. Characters alternately defend and challenge affirmative action, racial profiling, and other contemporary issues (the kinds many educational gag laws forbid classes to discuss). The novel doesn’t explicitly agree with any of these perspectives, though it is mostly limited to Justyce’s own complicated perspective as a young Black man who feels, at times, out of place both in his elite, majority-white, school and in his working class, majority-Black home neighborhood.
His teacher, Doc, one of the few employees of color at a predominately white school, later says, of people who have stereotyped and profiled young men like Justyce (and, presumably, Doc, himself), “They need to believe you’re a bad guy who got what he deserved in order for their world to keep spinning the way it always has”. (Incidentally, Doc’s depiction as a minority within the school is simply representative of reality: in America, the majority of teachers are white. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a whopping 80% are white.) Doc never tells his students they are right or wrong; he lets them debate complex issues and requires only that they keep these debates civil (even when characters say things that presumably are painful for Doc, as a Black man, to hear).
There’s a lot of empathy in Dear Martin, not only for young Black men like Justyce, but for characters that, in another book, might simply be antagonists.
For example, Jared, a White classmate who often represents a fairly blinkered worldview, could easily be a Lucius Malfoy type providing a simple foil for the main character. Instead, his views evolve in the course of the book in complex ways, as does his relationship with Justyce.
Manny, one of Justyce’s friends and a rare fellow student of color, struggles to reconcile his own privileged background with the assumptions some White characters make about him. Manny’s ideas also go through some dramatic changes.
An encounter with a gang leader from Justyce’s neighborhood gives perspective on the anger and feelings of disenfranchisement which drive this character, without excusing or condoning his actions; ultimately, Justyce distances himself from criminal activity and prefers a path towards an elite college, despite the disapproval of some of his old acquaintances.
And one of the clearest allies in the book, SJ, complicates the White/ Black binary used by many of the other characters; as a Jewish girl, she is also a minority in the school, and one of the book’s most interesting dilemmas is presented by Justyce’s mother, an admirable, hard-working, and supportive parent who nonetheless strongly disapproves of Justyce becoming closer to a “White” girl.
The book does contain some bad words, and that’s the surface level reason it has been challenged. In fact, BookLooks provides a neat tabulation of how many bad words each book on its list contains, presumably to make it easier to challenge them. But bad words are almost a given in Young Adult literature (because, like it or not, teens generally like to say bad words). And one of the bad words cited by BookLooks is one that makes it easy to challenge a great deal of American literature dealing critically with racism: the N word.
That’s the same word that, under South Carolina’s proposed book restriction regulations, would likely get all kinds of texts banned, from Huckleberry Finn (one of the books recommended as an alternative to Stamped in Pickens) to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (which Superintendent Ellen Weaver read aloud during a recent address to librarians) to “Letter From Birmingham Jail”.
That’s because the regulations—perhaps intentionally— remove all context from decisions about “age appropriateness” and go even further by adding an FCC compliance requirement that is both inappropriate— these books aren’t being broadcast, and in most cases they aren’t even being required— and broader than the definition of prohibited content in any other piece of censorship legislation I’ve seen. If you can’t say it on TV or the radio during the day, or if it has any “sexual content,” it doesn’t matter what else a book might have going for it: no one, from a kindergartner to a high school senior taking a college-credit English course, can access even an excerpt of it through a public school classroom or library.
That broad definition of “age-inappropriate” makes the proposed language potentially more dangerous to intellectual freedom than laws already passed in Florida, Iowa, Utah, Texas, and other states which have seen huge waves of book challenges and bans.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to believe that Dear Martin has been challenged across the country simply because it contains words you can’t say on daytime television, and even using South Carolina’s overly expansive definition of “sexual content,” it couldn’t be banned or challenged under that criteria (because there is no description of sex or nudity in the book). After all, plenty of classics of American literature contain bad words (and even more contain “sexual content”).
Instead, the reason is right there in the title: this is a book about a young Black man trying to reckon with America’s real, present racial issues through a dialogue with his imagined version of Dr. King. In doing so, he prods at some uncomfortable questions without easy answers.
Traditionally, uncomfortable questions without easy answers are supposed to be a part of a public school curriculum. Of course we can debate how uncomfortable those questions should be, but without some kind of discomfort there can be, by definition, no learning. And we have to reckon with the danger of censoring these questions only when they come from Black authors or Black characters, as many of the complaints in Pickens, Lexington, and throughout the country have suggested we do.