James Baldwin once said, "To be an African American is to be an African without memory and an American without privilege.1” In this brief passage, Baldwin highlights the plight of African Americans who have been stripped of their cultural roots and dispossessed of their rights and privileges by a system designed to render them stateless.
It is little wonder that in “Mein Kampf,” Adolph Hitler has nothing more than praise for America “as the one state that has made progress toward a primarily racial conception of citizenship, by ‘excluding certain races from naturalization 2” Hitler, by the 1930s, with a minority government, seized power and transformed his adoration of Jim Crow laws into the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of their rights, rendering them stateless. One of the critical features of this disenfranchisement was banning books written by Jewish authors or had communist or pacifist sympathies.
So I find it ironic that during the week when we celebrate Memorial Day--a day set aside for memorializing the defeat of Nazis, among others--in the same week, there’s a news report that an elementary school in Miami Lakes, with a population of approximately 30,000, “removed access” to ”The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman. The removal was initiated after Daily Salinas, a parent of two students at--get this--Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes, filed a complaint against "The Hill We Climb" for what she said included references to critical race theory, “indirect hate messages,” gender ideology, and indoctrination3. But what about the rights of the 365 African American residents? Don’t they count? The rapidity with which school officials complied with Ms. Salinas’demands can no doubt be attributed to their fear of violating the Anti-Woke Law that Governor DeSantis signed in 2022.
Before signing the Anti-Woke Law, the governor, in a speech given to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2021, revealed one of the reasons for enacting the law. “You also look at what animates so many of these people. It’s a woke ideology, which I think is much more dangerous than simply saying it’s socialism. It is, but it’s much more pervasive. It’s a form of cultural marxism.3”
I won't try to indoctrinate you with the poem ‘The Hill We Climb”: you can read the full text here (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/01/amanda-gormans-inauguration-poem-the-hill-we-climb/). What I will say is “The Hill We Climb,” uses alliteration, assonance, allusion, anaphora, repetition, and vivid imagery to call for unity and hope. So why ban a book that upholds the values of the national motto, E Pluribus Unum? Why ban books at all?
Books, and especially poems, according to Roger Robinson, are “empathy machines.4” And this is the main reason they are banned. A well-written book affects a reader’s rational and emotional registers and influences her perspective. Also, in the case of “The Will We Climb,” the book not only offers a glimpse of the struggle of African Americans but also has the potential for African Americans to gain allies like in the Freedom Rides. During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans and whites rode together in buses to protest racial segregation. Whites sacrificed—sometimes with their lives—marching with African-Americans for the cause of freedom.
This call for justice was one of the main reasons Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.5”
The Marxist communist boogeyman has been used for almost a century against black leaders from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King, Jr. Whenever African American leaders or symbols threaten the dominant narrative, this canard is used to suggest that African Americans in their calls for justice are anti-American. As if African Americans, from the Harlem Hellfighters to the Tuskegee Airmen-- some of whom will be honored at various sites during Memorial Day--have not fought for freedom against Communist dictatorships around the world. As if according to the “New York Times,” African Americans in the US Army do not serve at a higher rate than their population in the US6. But behind this smokescreen, there is a desire to grab power as Hitler did in 1933. And as the ratio of whites to nonwhites in the US continues to decline, the fearmongering will only get worse.
1. Goodreads. “James Baldwin Quotes (page 62).” https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/10427.James_Baldwin?page=62.
2. Ross, Alex. “How American Racism Influenced Hitler.” The New Yorker, April 30, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/30/how-american-racism-influenced-hitler.
3. “Miami-Dade school restricts 4 books from elementary students.” Miami Herald. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/education/article275671496.html.
4. "Here Are the Things Ron DeSantis Thinks Are 'Woke,'" Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2022/02/here-are-the-things-ron-desantis-thinks-are-woke/.
5. Philp, Geoffrey. “One Minute Book Review: On Poetry.” Geoffrey Philp Blogspot: https://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/2023/05/one-minute-book-review-on-poetry.html.
6. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Praying with our feet.” January 17, 2019. https://www.jta.org/2019/01/17/ny/praying-with-our-feet.
7. Cooper, Helene. “Why the Military’s Most Powerful Weapon Is Still Failing to Promote Minorities.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/25/us/politics/military-minorities-leadership.html.