February 18, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Librarians, Educators Not Put Off By Black Lives Matter Controversy

The controversy surrounding the book Black Lives Matter hasn’t reached many school or public librarians. But those who are familiar with the new release say they won’t let the rhetoric determine their opinions.

Named for the hashtag that has turned into an organization with 27 chapters across the country, Black Lives Matter (ABDO Publishing, 2015) aims to inform middle and high school students about shootings of African-American men and the historical context surrounding them.

“As a good librarian, I prefer to make my judgments after I’ve read the book,” says Judy Woodward, the history coordinator at the Ramsey County Library, outside of Minneapolis.


The background

Duchess Harris, a professor of American Studies at Macalester University in St. Paul, co-authored the book with Sue Bradford Edwards, a blogger and freelance journalist in Missouri who covered the unrest in Ferguson after Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed, black 18-year-old involved in a convenience store robbery, was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In addition to recounting the events related to Brown’s death, the 112-page book also recounts neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman’s 2012 shooting of an unarmed Trayvon Martin in Florida, the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer in Oakland, CA, and the 2014 death of Eric Garner while in police custody in Staten Island, NY. The book’s chapters also cover slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights movement.

A ‘surprising’ reaction

Several conservative commentators jumped on the book even before its November 1 release, saying that it perpetuates stereotypes of African Americans as victims in society and holds white people responsible.

On a Fox News program, radio talk show host Larry Elder, who is black, said the book is “indoctrinating young kids, teaching them that black people are victims and, by the way, you, as white people, ought to feel really, really guilty about it. Never mind the election, and re-election, of a black president.”

Some critics even called it a textbook and said that students would be required to read it, but Paul Abdo, executive vice president and editor in chief of ABDO Publishing, says it is meant to be a supplemental book if students are doing research or want to find out more about the topic. “We have source notes in the back for further reading,” Abdo says. “It’s just one small source in a huge movement that’s going on.”

An educational publisher, Abdo has published several books for students on divisive topics in the news, including transgender issues and ISIS. But this reaction has been different.

“It was pretty surprising with this one because the book hadn’t even been released. They haven’t read the book,” Abdo says.

Sifting out the truth

Sarah Hannah Gómez, a former school librarian and continuing education instructor at Simmons College in Boston, says she thinks the book will help students, as well as teachers and librarians, learn the facts of the cases “rather than wade through rumors and secondhand information.” In learning how to do research, she says it’s necessary to “uncover multiple sources from a variety of angles of bias in order to sift out the truth” and that includes “voices from the movement itself and from the marginalized community it effects.”

A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance is a clearinghouse of information about anti-bias programs in schools. The Black Lives Matter movement is frequently discussed in the organization’s magazine and in its blog and social media posts.

“We want teachers to talk about it because we know students are. White students and students of color alike are exposed to racial profiling, racial slurs, racial bias and all kinds of conflicting information about racial identity on a daily basis,” says Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance.  “Without factual information and a framework to help them contextualize this input, they may not know what to make of the movement or how to filter what they hear.” She also says she hopes the book provides a “counterbalance to the message that BLM is actually some kind of dangerous extremist movement.”

‘A different moment’

In an August interview on a Twin Cities PBS show, Harris said she was motivated to write the book because freshmen would frequently arrive in her class with little knowledge of race relations in the United States. “Students often don’t understand why people protest in the way in which they do,” she said. “The purpose is just to explain how these events have evolved.”

Harris describes the Black Lives Matter protests as “just a different moment” within the overall Civil Rights movement. What’s different is that they are playing out in a “very 21st century internet way,” she says.  She adds that the solutions to racial injustice are also related to technology, such as police officers having cameras on them. The book, she says, also helps white parents respond to their children’s questions or “open up” a conversation with them.

The Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Office of Black Male Student Achievement is considering using the book as part of its curriculum,” according to the district’s communications office.

Woodward, feeling the professor would do a good job communicating with a “non-scholarly audience,” invited Harris to give a three-part lecture series early next year titled “Black Lives Matter: a Movement in Context” at the Ramsey County Library.

The series is part of a statewide legacy of providing tax dollars for cultural heritage programming.

“I believe that most contemporary events can be better understood in the context of their cultural roots,” Woodward says, adding that the lectures are a way to address issues “ripped from the headlines” in an “atmosphere of calm and civil discourse.”

While the lectures are meant for an adult audience, she says students are also welcome. She believes those who attend “will go away with a sense of having learned something.”






Linda Jacobson About Linda Jacobson

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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  1. It’s Macalester College not Macalester University.