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Robert Azzi: We must all read that way

For the Monitor
Published: 10/3/2021 7:00:16 AM

This past week, Banned Books Week in America, as The MacArthur Foundation was justly awarding a Genius grant 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.”

It’s worth noting that the American Library Association recently reported that Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Kendi and Jason Reynolds was America’s second-ranked most banned book in 2020, noting 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, cuneiform, hieroglyphs and early Semitic alphabets, through Gutenberg, evolving to Java and Python, evolving to reliance on computers and hand-held devices.

Other languages, like Cretan hieroglyphs, are still un-deciphered, the stories they tell still a mystery.

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 the 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.”

Within the last half-century alone, manuscripts dating back to the 13th century were burned in Timbuktu by al-Qaeda terrorists and the Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists, incinerating approximately 97,000 rare Tamil books of history and literature.

Over millennia, the limits of religious and secular freedoms have been most tested when powerful leaders or privileged institutions decided that creative intellectual works challenged their authority — a practice that continues to this day.

Whether by challenging the right of marginalized communities to narrate unexpurgated histories or by trying to delegitimize intellectuals by misrepresenting their work. Whether by insurrection and Big Lies or by denying the franchise to minority communities, the oppressive efforts of those who deny America’s history is unrelenting.

To confront such efforts to delegitimize the voices of the Other, Americans must insist on the freedom to read books like The 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, anti-Semites, 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.”

And to accomplish that, as Neil Gaiman has written, “We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.

“…If you do not value libraries,” Gaiman continues, “then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future …This is a matter of common humanity.”

To assure an honorable future we must know our history, abandon the sanitized, white-washed past of an imagined reality that brought comfort and ease to some but dehumanized too many others, in favor of a future that embraces an intergenerational recognition of the universal intersectionality of race, class, religion, gender and ethnicity.

Sylvia Plath wrote, at age 16, “You ask me why I spend my life writing? … I write only because / There is a voice within me / That will not be still.”

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. He was the 2018 Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ First Amendment Award winner. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com and he can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com.)




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