Black History and the American Art of Denial

Citing a lawsuit filed in Alabama against a prison that prevented a prisoner from receiving a book about slavery, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. evaluates America's complicated relationship with black history. He calls it the art of denial.

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Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. uses a lawsuit against a prison for preventing a prisoner from receiving a book about slavery to illustrate America's complicated relationship with black history. He calls it the art of denial.

A story for Black History Month.

Bryan Stevenson is director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based organization he founded in 1989 to provide legal representation for the indigent and incarcerated. The EJI doesn’t charge its clients but, says Stevenson, he will sometimes require them to read selected books.

Last year, Stevenson sent two books to prisoner Mark Melvin, who is doing life for a murder he committed when he was 14. One was Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a doctor’s struggle to bring medical services to Haiti. The other was Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of how the South instituted a form of de facto slavery by mass arresting black men on nonsense charges and “selling” them to plantations, turpentine farms and other places of back-breaking labor.

Stevenson says the prison allowed Melvin to receive the first book, but banned the second. Prison officials, says Stevenson, felt it was “too provocative, they didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the idea that the title conveyed. They didn’t read the book, but they were concerned about it and thought that it would be ‘too dangerous’ to have in the prisons.”

Stevenson filed suit. As the case wends its way through the courts, it speaks with an eloquence to our complicated relationship with African-American history here in this 86th observance of what was once called Negro History Week. America, says Stevenson, struggles with “denialism,” i.e., a refusal to face its grim past of racial crimes and human rights violations. 

Read Leonard Pitts Jr.'s entire column at the Miami Herald.

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