Growing up in the 1970s, one got a good snootful of what today might be wrongly described as critical race theory: The film “Sounder,” in the wake of a prominent novel, offered a searing depiction of sharecropping. The made-for-TV epic “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” also based on a novel, took us through a sweep of history from slavery to segregation. The “Roots” mini-series, watched by millions (all at the same time, in a way that’s probably hard to imagine for those too young to remember life before D.V.R.s), portrayed the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation barbarity in a way American audiences hadn’t seen. As Charlayne Hunter-Gault reported for The Times in 1977, a Black economist in Philadelphia said, “It has made the brutality of slavery more vivid for me than anything I’ve seen or read.” To refresh a sense of what an event “Roots” was at the time, recall that the cast included some of the biggest names of the day, including John Amos, Lloyd Bridges and Sandy Duncan. Cicely Tyson, who passed away last year, starred in “Sounder,” “Miss Jane Pittman” and “Roots.”
Meanwhile, the novelist Judy Blume pushed the envelope with coming-of-age stories — what we might now call “Y.A.” fiction — including 1970’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” and an even more envelope-pushing one, 1975’s “Forever …” that depicted teenagers embarking on a sexual relationship. I recall “Forever …,” especially, getting around as a kind of contraband among curious adolescents, with its unblushingly frank descriptions. And it was part of a general trope of the time: For example, in 1978, the network TV series “James at 16” (previously titled “James at 15”) depicted a young man losing his virginity.
No doubt, these offerings gave a broader audience a different awareness of racism and sexuality. It was a new American popular culture, and one felt enlightened to be a part of it. Did “Roots” cause some Black people (and maybe some white people) to doubt or even denounce the American experiment? Maybe. At the time, reportedly, Ronald Reagan said, “I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.” Towering figure though he was, that seems like the wrong takeaway from the mini-series. And I doubt anyone today traces any kind of woke oppositional sentiment to that show or others of the time. Did “Forever …” encourage some teenagers to try what its characters did? Maybe. And clearly some take issue with that — it’s on one of the American Library Association’s lists of “most frequently challenged books.” But surely it was more that “Forever …” reflected what people were already doing (The Pill, anyone?) than that the book suddenly transformed the culture.
So we should consider whether “Roots” and “Forever …” were really dangerous when assessing today’s penchant for book-banning on the political right. “Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story,” a children’s book recounting the author’s experiences as a 6-year-old desegregating a school in New Orleans, was characterized as anti-white by a Tennessee Moms for Liberty chapter trying to prevent it from being taught in schools. But consider that “Roots” negatively portrayed white people who were either enslavers or who tolerated slavery, and I’m not aware of any effort now to ban it. There was even a 2016 “Roots” reboot on the History channel.
As The Times’s Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter reported this month, an array of books, including Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature, have explicit references to sex and, as a result, have been challenged. But consider that in the ’70s, lots of teenagers read “Forever …” and the world somehow kept spinning.
More books today encourage acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity. But the worries some have about these things now — the overheated “grooming” debate that has sprung up around Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay law, for instance — will one day probably seem as out of step as the worries some may have had about books like “Forever ….” Then: Should young readers be passing around a paperback in which two teenagers having premarital sex is portrayed without moral judgment? Now: Should young readers know and accept that some people question the traditional gender binary? Of course, parents have a right to instill their children with their values, including those that run counter to cultural change. But there’s a pretty wide gulf between parenting and trying to get books or shows banned. At a certain level, today’s cavil will look no nobler than yesterday’s.
When it comes to race, book banners on the right claim that their issue is with something specific: critical race theory and its teaching that we must revise our conceptions of justice and morality based on subordinated groups’ communal narrative of oppression. But as I wrote in November, the right says “CRT” with an extended meaning, referring not just to the academic body of work but also to a multiplicity of ideas or classroom materials that might assign guilt to white people about racism overall by stressing its role in our national history.
But understandable though even that impulse is, it means, too often, questioning teachers who dwell in any way on racism and its past and present. I recall a white acquaintance whose view on race matters was sympathetic in the way expected of someone of a particular social class, but not especially nuanced. To even dwell on race issues was to “stir that stuff up.” Since racism had been duly tamped down and was headed for dissolution, the thought went, the problem was with certain hotheaded activists and scholarly types who insist on shoveling everything back up to the surface. You know: It’s all in the past, people talk too much about their “feelings,” and so on.
I sense this same perspective in some on the right who seem to be hoping that schoolkids won’t ever learn anything about “that stuff.” But a true education requires knowing about slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement. After all, that stuff did happen, and it did matter; it did shape our present. And there’s no reason to presume that learning about it will turn kids or anyone else into hyper-woke partisans, happily canceling anyone who dares question hard-leftist proselytizing on race. I, a Montessori and Quaker school kid, was raised on this stuff, as were many of my private-school classmates, mostly white, and few of us are now hoping America will be shaped by “antiracist” struggle sessions. Lots of people who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and aughts read and saw plenty of eye-opening, difficult material and turned out fine.
Which is what the book-banning right must urgently come to grips with, because its increasingly illiberal streak parallels the excesses of the hard left’s engaging in hyper-woke partisanship in the guise of progress and social justice.
And the left is definitely no model: Last week, the book “Bad and Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology,” written by a white academic, Jennifer Buck, was canceled — pulled from circulation by its publisher. As Alter and Harris reported for The Times, the book’s blurb says it “engages with the overlap of Black experience, hip-hop music, ethics and feminism” but it was “widely condemned on social media as poorly executed and as an example of cultural appropriation.” The question is why the book, whatever its flaws and whatever criticisms it faces, should be utterly disallowed from further distribution. Perhaps the author sounds some notes that reveal her as an outsider to the culture she describes; perhaps the book just isn’t very good — but whence this idea that it should be zapped out of existence?
These cancellations are part of a larger project, seeking to muzzle opinions antithetical to the woke quest to eternally contest power differentials and endlessly expand the definition of white supremacy. People on the right are duly appalled by this mind-set. But they miss that their book bans are just as tinny, just as local to petty concerns of our moment and just as, well, unjust. And by revving up its own cancel culture, the anti-woke right is providing the woke left with bulletin-board material: The left, when called on its excesses, can just point to the right’s school-board crusades to justify its own inquisitional zeal. Don’t ban “Bad and Boujee”? How about: Don’t ban “The Bluest Eye”! I’ve encountered endless renditions of this argument in the wake of my book, “Woke Racism.”
The conflict-shy left-of-center onlooker, alarmed by — but unprepared to confront — wokeism on his or her own “side,” winds up finding a certain comfort in what the right is doing. If right-wing zealots are as out-of-bounds as left-wing zealots, they’re able to classify hyper-wokeism as but one symptom of a pox on both ideological houses — a larger, equal-opportunity puritanism. This, in seeming rather hopelessly general, and a matter of a national mood rather than a particular fault of a woke agenda, evinces less desire to face it down. It seems too protean to productively oppose, and all you can do is shake your head and move on.
So here’s a question for right-wing book banners: Do you honestly think the world without your book bans would be a terrible place?
Because if you don’t, and if what you’re really doing is a combination of virtue signaling, panning for gratifying retweets and ginning up wedge issues to help win elections, then you are mirroring what the hard left has been overdosing on since two springs ago. You’re distracting focus from the way the left continues to shred our cultural fabric. There is no better way to sponsor recreational woke puritanism than by fostering a right-wing version of the same.
Have feedback? Send me a note at [email protected].
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”