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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Parents debate what and how NHCS students should learn about racism, removal of ‘Stamped’

Protestors gathered outside the NHCS Board of Education Center in opposition to book bans on Aug. 1, 2023. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Tuesday night’s school board meeting demonstrated a bitter divide over a book outlining a history of racist ideas in America. Nearly 30 people spoke out during public comment regarding an upcoming hearing on “Stamped” and the school board’s role in regulating reading. 

READ MORE: NHCSB will hear appeal on banning book on racism

Last week, the board voted to add 30 minutes to its public comment period for Tuesday’s meeting to garner feedback on book selection in district curriculum and libraries. Before people took to the podium, over a hundred people gathered outside the Board of Education Center in protest to the board’s recent moves to question book appropriateness.

“I just want to say to those who have the nerve to want to ban a book, what we should be banning really is your whole ideology and your thinking,” speaker Mahlaynee Nicole-Cooper said during the rally. 

Cooper is an activist and writer in the community known for her poetry and founder of Speak Ya Peace North Carolina.

“Change will never occur if you cannot wrap your mind around the truth,” Cooper said. 

“So what I’m getting at is that you would prefer to teach your children about Santa Claus, Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy than let them know about what’s really happening right now.” 

The protest’s organizers included Mosaic UMC pastor Kelley Finch, Love Our Children co-founder Peter Rawitsch and  New Hanover County Democratic Party chair Jill Hopman.

“Book banning is not a partisan issue,” Hopman said during the rally. 

She cited the American Library Association’s statistics that show 70% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats oppose book banning in local public libraries.

“It’s just that our local officials happen to be much more extreme than that,” Hopman said. 

The rally was eventually interrupted by an incoming storm and a large portion of the crowd headed to the Board of Education entrance, filling it to capacity. When the board’s call to audience came around, most of the speakers addressed book banning or the upcoming hearing on “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.” 

Written by Jason Reynolds based on the work of anti-racism activist and author Ibram X. Kendi, the book was used as part of last year’s AP Language and Composition curriculum at Ashley High School.

Since last fall, parent Katie Gates has been pushing for its removal from the curriculum and school libraries, despite her child being given a separate assignment per policy. 

The parent appealed the decisions from the district and Ashley’s media review committee, which decided to retain the book. Gates’ appeal will now go before the school board.

Bradford was resistant to holding Tuesday’s special public comment before the “Stamped” hearing, fearing speakers would conflate the book hearing and book bans in general. Of those that spoke on books during public comment, many of them mentioned the “Stamped” hearing; those against removing the book from curriculum outnumbered those for it 16:9. 

The book’s inclusion in AP class was for the purpose of analyzing Kendi and Reynolds’ argument, not its content. According to course materials obtained by Port City Daily, questions students are posed regarding the book include: “What are the two main rhetorical choices Reynolds uses to communicate this claim?” and “How did Reynolds likely want to impact the audience?” 

Tuesday’s speakers instead focused on the book’s content. Speaker Wendy Sleele criticized a quote from the book, stating “the only remedy to past discrimination is future discrimination.” 

Many claimed “Stamped” was aimed at indoctrinating students with Marxism or Critical Race Theory, and a false or overly biased perspective of American history. One speaker, Frank Fortunado, compared reading “Stamped” to including a book by Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in the class curriculum.

“The enemy is coming after our children,” speaker Karen Clark said. “You were elected to restore conservative values, to protect our children and parental rights, to remove anti-American viewpoints, Critical Race Theory, and sexual grooming from the curricula, to restore physical and mental safety, and focus on reading, writing, math and civics with a quality curricula to support academic growth.”

Those that spoke against removing the book noted it was deemed appropriate by the school and district, indicating a dismissal of professional educators’ expertise.

Ashley’s AP Literature and Composition teacher Lisa Williams cited her credentials before the board — a pass rate of 92%, 22 years of experience (nine in AP), a bachelor’s degree, two masters degrees, and national board certification.

“I would say that I probably know a few things about selecting texts that are appropriate,” Williams said. 

A few people touched on how important books like “Stamped” were — or would have been — to their education. 

Rev. Donald Mapson, a retired teacher, said the book was valuable in that it challenged students and improved their critical thinking skills, while also stating he wished he had that experience in school. 

“It is important that kids get exposed to as much as they can,” Mapson said. “As a minority, I needed to know more about myself and know about my community. I couldn’t find too many books in the library that would challenge me. Books like this, for all kids, are very important because they do need to know about racism.”

A few speakers in favor of the book accused the school board and other parents of trying to bridle stories of Black and brown people and their history of oppression in America. 

“I see that this parent’s request to ban the book is rooted in a long tradition of the desire on the part of many white people to hide the realities of racism and white supremacy in our culture because doing that allows us to maintain the status quo,” speaker Anna Lee said. 

Lee, having grown up in Wilmington, said she never learned in school of the Massacre of 1898, where white supremacists overthrew the biracial government and destroyed Black-owned businesses, killing many Black people and displacing hundreds. 

“That was an intentional choice on the part of people in power in various roles in our community,” Lee said. “You know why? Because it’s inconvenient for the perpetrators of that to have that truth out.”

After 90 minutes of mostly thoughts on banning books and teachings on racism, the school board did not take any action on the “Stamped” hearing or address comments on book removal. The closest they came was during a scheduled discussion on AP classes. 

Josie Barnhart broached the idea of district oversight on AP curricula, rather than siloing it by school, but it was her motion to require all students to take the AP exam that fueled the conversation. The College Board does not require students to take the exam at the end of the course; the exam also has no bearing on the student’s grade in the course. Barnhart thought students ought to take the exam so the most accurate data on their performance could be obtained. 

Still, the conversation resulted in the board directing district staff to present ideas to improve AP and dual-enrollment programs at the October meeting. 

The “Stamped” hearing has yet to be scheduled.

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