The end of September saw “Banned Books Week” in America during which the MacArthur Foundation awarded a ”Genius” award to Ibram X. Kendi noting “… Kendi is an American historian and writer drawing on an in-depth understanding of racist ideology to present a framework for building a more equitable society.”

This week it’s also worth noting that the American Library Association recently reported that “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” — a book for young adults that’s a new iteration of an early work — by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds was 2020 America’s second-ranked most banned book. The ALA noted that ”In their complaints, parents claimed that “Stamped” contained ‘selective storytelling incidents’ and ‘does not encompass racism against all people.’”

A familiar story – more mostly white people telling non-white people how they should narrate their own birthing story.

“It is ironic,” Kendi responded to the ALA report, “that our book is being challenged since it documents how generations of Americans have challenged the idea that the racial groups are equals and have fought to suppress the very truths contained on every page of “Stamped.” The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the history in “Stamped” will not be denied, nor will young people’s access to this book be cancelled.”

It must not be cancelled. The ALA reports that among the more than 273 books that were challenged or banned in 2020, “… there’s been a definite rise in the rhetoric challenging anti-racist materials and ideas … We’re seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America’s history with racism.”

It must not be cancelled.

Over millennia ideas and history have been transmitted through cave paintings, cuneiforms, hieroglyphs, and early Semitic alphabets — through Gutenberg — evolving to Java and Python, evolving to reliance on computers and hand-held devices.

Ideas — often competing — have been shared on walls, obelisks, tablets, scrolls, manuscripts, books, posters, graffiti, and social media.

Attempts to suppress ideas – especially those that challenge authority of preconceived prejudices – followed: Books and manuscripts were burned in Granada during the Spanish Inquisition and purged by fire in Berlin and Nuremberg in 1933 in “Action against the Un-German Spirit.”

To confront such efforts to delegitimize the voices of the Other Americans must insist on the freedom to read books like Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, who was sentenced, in absentia, to death by the Ayatollah of Iran, and Ibram X. Kendi’s works on American racism, insist on reading Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series — insist on the freedom to learn from them!

Understand that Rushdie, Kendi, Lee, and Rowling aren’t just challenged because some people disagree with their theology or opinions — they’re challenged because their insights threaten patriarchal authority and privilege.

“I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” Mary Oliver wrote in “Wild Geese.” “I wrote that way too.”

We must all read that way.

We must read that way to defend ourselves against racists, antiSemites, and Islamophobes; against bigots, against those who would attack communities on the basis of color, ethnicity, sex and gender identity — against those who fear a paradigm shift that might — after centuries – disenfranchise racists and favor diversity, inclusion, and justice and build a more equitable nation.

Read that way, too, to honor those who have died to protect all our freedoms — including those of the First Amendment; died to protect even authoritarians who malevolently claim that the press is “truly the enemy of the people.”

Today, the voice within America that will not be still speaks for justice, speaks for diversity, inclusion, and equity. Speaks clearly, because that’s who we are.

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com.

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