Six months ago, a South Carolina teacher was reported for teaching a book highlighting the Black experience in America. Mary Wood’s story is not unique. In fact, she’s lucky not to have lost her job, like many teachers have for similar infractions—just last week an eighth-grade teacher in Texas was fired for reading her students an illustrated version of Anne Frank’s diary.
When The Washington Post brought Wood’s story onto the national stage with a September 18, 2023 article, it struck a chord among members of the Wabash community. Why? The book she was reprimanded for teaching was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” one of the required Enduring Questions readings for all freshmen at Wabash since the spring of 2022.
“Between the World and Me” is framed as a letter from the author to his teenage son about what it means to be Black in America: growing up experiencing systemic racism and having to grow up and find a place in American society as a minority.
It’s no secret that Wabash doesn’t have the most racially diverse student body, currently sitting around 75% white. It’s exactly for that reason why books like “Between the World and Me,” which highlight experiences other than those predominantly featured in our culture, must not be removed from school curricula.
The report filed against Wood charged her with breaking a South Carolina state law prohibiting teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” due to their race.
Rules like the one in South Carolina are extremely detrimental to individuals and to our society at large.
With books such as “Between the World and Me” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” topping the list of banned literature, states across the U.S. have begun to self-fulfill the dystopian society prophesied by Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and Indiana is no exception. Among those banned books are “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars”, both written by Indianapolis native John Green.
The next time you are at your local bookstore, take a look around for the “Banned Books” section. Notable inclusions from Indiana may include:
- “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
- “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe
- “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
- “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
- “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson
- “Flamer” by Mike Curato
- “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evision
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
- “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins
If someone is banning a book, you should go read it, because there must be something in there worth reading. You may not agree with everything in it—you probably won’t—but you’ll be a better person for working through the internal conflict it may cause.
Ask any Wabash student and they’ll tell you the mission of Wabash is to educate men to think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively and live humanely. How can one live humanely without considering the lives of humans different from oneself? How can one act responsibly without being responsible for one’s own education? How can one lead effectively without understanding the views of those they may be leading? How can one think critically while clinging to preconceived beliefs and ideas? How can one do any of it without reading books that are intellectually, ethically and emotionally challenging?
While the EQ reading list for the spring of 2024 has not been finalized, co-chairs of the Freshman Year Experience committee Crystal Benedicks and Neil Schmitzer-Torbert are adamant that “Between the World and Me” is here to stay.
“I can say without any reservation that we are dedicated to teaching books that engage with issues of historical and systemic racism, among other systems of injustice,” Professor Benedicks said. “How can we have an equitable future if we refuse to recognize the legacy of the past?”
Freshmen: When you read “Between the World and Me” next semester in EQ, you might feel uncomfortable. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed. Lean into the discomfort. Discomfort leads to critical thinking, and critical thinking is crucial to being a Gentleman and a responsible citizen.
Sophomores and Juniors: Think back to your time discussing this book with your classmates. What was notable to you? What made you uncomfortable? How did you deal with the discomfort? How did you grow from having to engage in complicated discussion about race? What can you take from it in your Wabash journey and beyond?
Seniors: Get yourself a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” Maybe get a friend on board and you can discuss the book together. Whatever your race, ethnicity or background, Coates tells a tale of American life that can teach us all something about ourselves. As you head out into the “real world,” be prepared to feel the same discomfort you have felt at Wabash. We know that you are prepared.
Students, alumni, faculty and friends: Let’s all do our part to be citizens united with one another and for one another. It starts with educating ourselves. It starts with having difficult conversations. It starts with taking a stand for freedom and truth both in your communities and at the polls.
Read banned books. Get comfortable with discomfort. Think, rethink, and in doing so, become a more compassionate person and a more responsible citizen.