As right-wing groups pour money into local school board races, a Charlotte historian breaks down the conservative movement to limit the teaching of U.S. history, censor books on sex and sexuality, and oppress LGBTQ students.
Back in September, hundreds of Virginia high school students walked out of class to protest a set of proposed state policies that shamelessly sought to transform the U.S. Constitution from a document that bestows rights to one that allows them to be snatched away.
Deceptively titled “Model Policies on the Privacy, Dignity, and Respect for All Students and Parents in Virginia Public Schools,” the regulations placed strict limits on the rights of transgender students to manage their own lives while at school, including their right to be called by their chosen names.
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The “model policies” belong to the latest incarnation of a long, sordid thread in American history, one in which law, policy and culture have been used not to liberate, but to marginalize and repress. Virginia’s students recognized the danger to themselves, their friends, and their future, and they acted.
Similar policies loom on the horizon here in North Carolina. We must all be prepared.
Efforts to deny rights and freedoms took their most fully realized form in the racial slavery that formed an integral part of the American landscape from its start in 1619 to its bloody end in 1864.
The present-day effort – alive and well-funded here and across the country – casts a more diffuse net, encompassing assaults on the teaching of U.S. history, on LBGTQ students, and on literature that addresses experiences of sex and sexuality. But the two have much in common.
A History of Oppression
From the 17th through the 19th century, North American enslavers justified slavery by designating some groups of people as less deserving of rights than others. Early on, they relied on a centuries-old argument that Christians had the right to enslave non-Christians. That ended after an enslaved Virginian, Elizabeth Key, went to court and won her freedom in part by providing “a very good account of her fayth.”
Virginia’s laws were subsequently re-written to justify enslaving people of African descent, whether they were Christians or not.
Just after the Revolution, when the invention of the cotton gin sparked a massive expansion of American slavery, politically powerful enslavers ensured that American laws continued to be written and interpreted so that the growing number of human beings they enslaved not only had no right to freedom, they had no right to marry, to raise their children, to resist being beaten or raped, or to anything else.
Enslavers also used their influence to manipulate American culture. Through images, books, musical compositions, and theatrical performances they described slavery as a benevolent institution and cast themselves as caretakers and “protectors” of the people whose freedom they had stolen.
These efforts had powerful effects – in part because most white Americans were predisposed to see darker-skinned people as worth less than themselves. It took decades of work by a multiracial coalition of abolitionists to break through this propaganda and build the resolve required to fight the war that finally ended the “peculiar institution.”
Today’s efforts to take control of American culture do not involve the wholesale exploitation that slavery embodied. But they employ many of the techniques that underpinned that institution.
Unsurprisingly, the present-day campaign began with efforts to control the way American history is taught, with activists from right-wing-funded national groups such as “Moms 4 Liberty” and “Independent Women’s Voice” pressing for laws and policies that limited discussions of race or slavery at school. They have now turned to sex and sexuality.
Virginia’s “Model Policies” form a case in point. One telling section deals with names and pronouns – whether, for example, a transgender student would have the right to be called “John” and “he” rather than “Mary” and “she” while at school. Appendix 1, Section D starts with a seemingly noble statement in this regard: “Every effort should be made to ensure that a transgender student wishing to change his or her means of address is treated with respect, compassion, and dignity in the classroom and school environment.”
The rest of the section, however, replaces such soothing visions with a hard-nosed attack on students’ right to such self-determination. Drawing on a fragmentary assemblage of legal rulings it 1) requires families to submit legal documentation before students can even ask to be called by their preferred names and pronouns and 2) states that even with such documentation, schools cannot insist that anyone actually use those chosen names and pronouns. Requiring “personnel or other students” to accede to such requests, the document asserts, “would violate their constitutionally protected rights.”
This misnaming harks back to the slavery era. Back then, if a stolen African’s real name was Kunta Kinte, but his enslaver chose to call him Toby, there was nothing he could do about it. And just as that kind of dehumanization enabled widespread violence against enslaved individuals, so this present-day dehumanization enables widespread violence against transgender individuals.
The Attack on ‘Pornographic’ Literature
Another aspect of this effort – the attack on “pornographic” literature – recalls another aspect of slavery-era propaganda. Just as enslavers worked to keep the true experience of slavery out of public view, these new culture “warriors” seek to exclude key aspects of young people’s experience from classrooms and libraries.
Here in Charlotte, these efforts have targeted The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, a novel that tells the story of a mixed-race teenage girl, Rachel Morse, and her efforts to navigate a series of painful events, among them date rape. It includes the following passage.
When he touches me down there I count. He sticks his finger into me, and it feels like a pen jamming into a top. One. Two. Three. Four. Beautiful doesn’t let it hurt. Five. Six. “Please let me see what it feels like,” he says. I feel his weight on me and his hands spreading my legs farther apart.
The passage describes a teenager’s attempt to process a traumatic experience – one that is sadly familiar to many young women. But the right-wing activists who quote the passage in e-mails and read it aloud at school board meetings around the country show no interest in understanding Rachel or her experience. All they bring is blind outrage.
Charlotte school board member Sean Strain, for example, pointed to that passage in a demand that the book – which had been assigned as part of a ninth-grade reading program – be excised from the curriculum. He laid out his position in a series of e-mails in which he asserted that the point of language arts class was to teach “the beauty of the English language.”
“The question this Board should be asking is how our students are subjected to this text in the first place,” he wrote. “I’m about done with this ‘an alternative text will be provided’ excuse for having our students read, and our teachers instruct, this level of graphic obscenity.”
Such rhetoric recalls Southern reactions to the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that transformed the national debate over slavery by portraying the human struggles of enslaved characters such as Cassy and Eliza. One outraged Southern reviewer, writing in the Southern Literary Messenger, protested that the true purpose of novels was to “kindle and purify the imagination, while fanning into a livelier flame the slumbering charities of the human heart.” By “engaging in the coarse conflicts of life, and mingling in the fumes and gross odours of political or polemical dissension,” that reviewer contended, works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin “stained and tainted the robe of ideal purity” with which novels were “of old adorned.”
Just as young people have a clear understanding of the dangers posed by policies that seek to deprive maligned and marginalized individuals of their rights, they also have a deeper understanding of how literature can inform their lives. Charlotte high school students helped choose The Girl Who Fell from the Sky for the ninth-grade program, in part because they saw it as reflecting realities and struggles that face present-day youth.
The future belongs to these visionary youth. The job of adults is not to limit or “protect” them, but to support them as they chase it.