A Georgia school district has blacklisted a bestselling book for teens dealing with race, police brutality, Martin Luther King Jr. and the glare of the white gaze, effectively banning the book from the district’s libraries, curriculum and students who want to learn about race, police brutality, Martin Luther King Jr. and anything other than stuff about milquetoast white folks.
In 2017, Nic Stone’s Dear Martin debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list to rave reviews by teens, educators and critics alike. School Library Journal, a journal about...well I’m sure you can figure it out, included the novel in its Teen Librarians Toolkit and called it a “good choice for school and public libraries.” Summit Learning, a science and research-based resource for teachers, created a project around Dear Martin for ninth-grade English instructors who want to teach students about “resilience in the face of adversity.”
Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit, research-backed review site for parents, describes the book this way:
In DEAR MARTIN, Justyce McAllister attends an exclusive private school with mostly white students. He’s on the debate team, has some of the best grades in his class, and is certain he’s headed to Yale. Then one night changes his life and puts him on a path that has him questioning why things happen and what he can do to change them. His Dear Martin project, in which he tries to live like Martin Luther King Jr., is put in jeopardy from the moment he’s put in handcuffs. Tested by racist classmates, skeptical friends from his former neighborhood, and a rain of bullets, Justyce finds himself a target in the battle over police brutality and race. What would Martin do?
While all of this might sound like innocuous content for a high school student, one Georgia school district disagrees. The Columbia County School District recently banned Dear Martin from its curriculum because of the novel’s “unacceptable”...Well, that part isn’t really clear.
“The information that was provided was just unacceptable,” Superintendent Sandra Carraway said.
Each school year, the District Reading Resources Professional Learning Community, sometimes referred to as the Novel Committee, submits a list of supplemental novels recommended for reading in English courses in high schools. Each book is reviewed by two teachers who are asked to provide the reading difficulty and page numbers of any potential areas of concern, including profanity or sexual content. The list is reviewed by Carraway, and approved books are voted on by the school board.
Committee members submitted this year’s recommendations last spring and were specifically asked in an email Aug. 6, the day before school began, to provide a list of page numbers of any sex or rape scenes, graphic depictions or profanity other than “hell” or “damn.” Carraway said that after reviewing the list of books, there were three she was not willing to bring to the board for approval because of the explicit content. She does not recall having to do this in the past.
After Carraway’s review process, not only did she decide that Dear Martin wasn’t appropriate for the district’s educators to use in their English curriculum, but she also decided that the popular work wouldn’t be available in the district’s media centers. (You probably called them “libraries” when you were in school. Same thing.)
“For clarification, these novels would not be required reading, as are those defined in curricula, but rather works that teachers may choose to use in their classes to enhance learning,” wrote Carraway in an email to The Root, noting that CCS never had a “defined procedure or criteria for media specialists to use when purchasing novels for their school’s media center,” but that she is working to implement one.
But why, though?
That part isn’t clear.
The Root obtained an overview of Columbia County’s review process used by the Reading Resources and Supplemental Materials Committee. The committee, which is comprised of representatives from all five high schools in the county, reads the recommended works to “determine the appropriateness of the books for high school students.” The review process considers the instructional purpose of the novel, the reading level and “areas of potential concern.”
During the process, the group flags specific page numbers that contain “extreme content” including violence, sex language and—I swear this is true—if “the Lord’s name is taken in vain.” (That book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was not approved for a 12th-grade British Literature course.)
Carraway’s book-banning didn’t just anger black parents. Tara Wood, a parent whose children attend schools in the district, said the decision “is goddamn embarrassing for those of us who are not white supremacist gatekeepers.”
“If this isn’t some racially influenced bullshit, I don’t know what is,” Wood told The Root. “She claims it’s because of the use of the ‘F-word’ (that would be “fuck” for those who live in fucking caves) when at least three books that WERE approved include the word FUCK on multiple occasions.”
Wood’s claims appear to be true. The Root obtained the Columbia County Board of Education’s list of novels that were not approved—including the “areas of potential concern.” When we compared the censored books to the list that received the Board of Education’s approval, it was not clear why some books were banned and others were not.
One of the potential areas of concern for Dear Martin was the author’s use of profanity, including the “slang use of the n-word” twice and the racial use of the n-word once, which is amazing (I used the n-word 632 times a day when I was in high school. That’s probably why I didn’t get accepted to Yale). The committee wrote that “overall, the language is not inappropriately used in the context for the students.”
However, at least three of the books approved by CCS also used profanity, including Alas, Babylon, a novel about the aftermath of a nuclear fallout where white characters use the full, “hard r” (I bet they read that part aloud at the meeting). Apparently, that’s OK because, according to the book-banning committee, the racial slur was used “to reveal the biases or racism of characters.” Plus, everyone knows nuclear radiation kills racism, so the characters aren’t racist at the end of the book. “The text has a clear message of unity,” the report notes, explaining that “several characters overcome their biases.”
Dear Martin’s use of alcohol and violence didn’t seem to trouble the committee either. So if it wasn’t banned for language or violence, why was the book banned? The only other areas of concern were the existence of racism and the fact that cops are sometimes violent.
“The text has a few scenes of adult violence (cops) against AA teens,” the committee report explains. “Overall, the text deals with racial tendencies as a negative attribute of society but how to reconcile them and evoke change.”
“My assumption is that the displeasure is with the overall topic of the book,” said Dear Martin’s author, Nic Stone, who told The Root she was currently working on a sequel to the heralded novel. “I think it’s just a discomfort with talking about racism.”
Stone said that she heard about the controversy when a Columbia County School’s English teacher emailed her that Carraway had referred to the book as “filth.”
“When it comes to things like this, banning tends to be a reactionary power move rather than something that’s well thought out,” Stone explained. “I think that talking about race in general—even using the word ‘race’—causes discomfort for a lot of people. As we gain traction in Hollywood, the publishing industry and every other area, I think there’s an overall discomfort with facing up to the fact that racism is still a thing that we need to be talking about. But I don’t think it’s possible to talk about it without people being uncomfortable.”
Stone noted that part of the aversion to the book may be that the book dismantles the whitewashed caricature of Dr. King as an all-embracing, lovable figure. She began writing the book after the death of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old shot and killed by a white man for playing his music too loud. Inspired by the frequency of white people who used King as a battering ram to dismantle the emerging movement for black lives, Stone began writing Dear Martin.
“I noticed how often white people were quoting King in opposition to this movement for nonviolent protest,” she said. “That’s when the pieces came together.”
“We just gotta get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Nothing changes if there is no discomfort. Especially members of the majority. White people gotta get okay with not being comfortable all the time. Black people, we’ve been uncomfortable our whole life. Kids need to know that’s an okay feeling and that talking about things makes the world better.”
The Columbia County School District’s student population is 60 percent white, 20 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic, according to the Georgia Board of Education. The school board is 100 percent white.
Dear Martin is available in bookstores and libraries everywhere.
Unless you are in Columbia County, Ga., in which case…
Fuck you, nigger.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)