By Paige Duggins-Clay, J.D. • Knowledge is Power • February 24, 2023 • Paige Duggins Clay

When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, the authors notably omitted any explicit rights or responsibilities for public education. Accordingly, when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, the 10th Amendment delegated the responsibility of providing education to the states.

With this critical decision, the fledgling federal government created the opportunity for states to legally bar Black and other non-white people from education, a precedent that would hold for nearly a century of this nation’s history.

236 years later, states continue to wield substantial power over children’s educational opportunities. Our nation has made great strides toward dismantling the discriminatory systems and structures that create harmful barriers for Black children to learn and thrive in public education.

But recent efforts to obscure and censor truthful conversations about our nation’s past and present create harmful school climates and indicate that our state and school leaders still have lessons to learn about the intent and impact of historical efforts to limit educational opportunity.

To date, thousands of books by or about Black, LGBTQ+ and other systemically-marginalized groups have been banned from our nation’s schools. Banned books include materials discussing the United States’ history of racism; prominent books by Black women authors with themes of race and racism; anti-Black police brutality; and fiction centered on Black, Latino and LGBTQ+ characters and plotlines.

Similarly, at least 203 local, state, and federal government entities across the country have introduced 619 bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements, and other measures restricting access to truthful information about race and systemic racism. These regressive censorship policies ban so-called “divisive concepts,” a term that is being used as a pretext to target primarily Black and LGBTQ+ educators, scholars, and – ultimately – the students who they support.

Students and educators report feeling unsafe talking about the reality of racial and other forms of injustice, even as they watch such injustice unfold in horrific and stark detail through news, social media and their own lived experiences.

Banning the perspectives and stories of Black educators, activists and writers is nothing new.

Between 1800 and 1835, the majority of southern states enacted legislation that made it a crime to teach enslaved individuals to read and write. These restrictions were necessary for both practical and ideological purposes: illiterate, enslaved African Americans were unable to read or write the documentation necessary for Black people to move around the slave slates. And their illiteracy was a dead giveaway in the free world if they attempted to run away. Further, it was imperative for the integrity of the slaving institution that enslaved African Americans did not have opportunities to access news of abolition efforts and other revolutionary rhetoric from the North.

As Heather Williams notes in Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, slave masters made every attempt to control their captives’ thoughts and imaginations, because “maintaining a system of bondage in the Age of Enlightenment depended upon the master’s ability to speak for the slave, to deny his or her humanity, and to draw a line between slave consciousness and human will.”

The tension that the possibility of slave literacy provoked between slave owners and Black laborers sparked intense conflict, as the ability to read revealed to the world that America’s most valuable property had a mind – while the potential to write foretold the ability to construct an alternate narrative about the bondage America kept them in.

Cognizant of the revolutionary potential of Black education, southern lawmakers enacted strict laws that forbade the teaching of enslaved and often even free Blacks to read or write. In 1819, Virginia banned “all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing with such slaves… in the night; or any school for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or the night.”

Similarly, in 1831 Alabama passed a law stating “Any person who shall endeavor or attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read, or write, shall… be fined.”

And on February 16, 1847, Missouri passed an act prohibiting Black people from learning to read and write and assembling freely for worship services.

It is clear that southern lawmakers linked Black literacy to slavery’s demise and invested considerable political energy and resources into enforcing a legal regime of Black ignorance and inferiority.

Current efforts to limit the ability of all children to access ideas and information challenging normative attitudes, beliefs and perspectives on deep topics, such as racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination hearkens back to the policies of the antebellum era. And some of the strategies employed by state leaders to resist integration after Brown are the same strategies being pushed by some state leaders today.

As Justice John Minor Wisdom, a legendary judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote in U.S. v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the fight for equal educational opportunity “is more than a matter of words.” He continued: “The attitude and purpose of public officials, school administrators and faculties are an integral part of any plan and determine its effectiveness more than the words employed. If these public agents translate their duty into affirmative and sympathetic action the plan will work; if their spirit is obstructive, or at best negative, little progress will be made, no matter what form of words may be used.” U.S. v. Jefferson County Bd. of Educ., 372 F.2d 836, 890 (1966) (citation omitted).

As state lawmakers convene across the nation, Judge Wisdom’s observations serve as a sobering reminder that calls to limit the thinking, learning, teaching, and writing of Black students and educators is a dangerous precedent linked to a bygone era and should be unequivocally disavowed.

We urge policymakers to reject censorship in all its forms and instead adopt policies affirming that all students deserve access to books, curricula and instruction that reflects their experiences, cultures and honest and accurate representations of history.

[©2023, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 24, 2023, edition of Knowledge is Power by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]