“Ignorance is not bliss. It is deadly!”
These were the words of my favorite teacher—Shirley Owens Prince. The recent movement to ban library books has revived my memory of her relentless refrain. She was a small Black woman with a booming voice. On Tuesday nights in a North Memphis church, she taught a weekly Bible study. As she struggled with congestive heart failure, our teacher was hell-bent on disrupting our ignorance with books.
In one breath she spoke about Jesus. In the next breath, she encouraged students to read thought-provoking titles like Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart, and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. These books challenged us to tackle literature we never encountered in school. Who unpacks the symbolism in William Faulkner’s, As I Lay Dying for a church Bible study? We did.
My teacher’s knowledge about literature, history, and current events inspired several students to set new academic goals. Some full-time workers in the class applied for college under her guidance and some of us pursued graduate studies.
Probing class conversations also helped us form new opinions and rituals. Some students were not fastidious about voting in local or federal elections. But that changed one night after the teacher led us in a passionate discussion on American Reconstruction, Barack Obama, and the possibility that America could elect its first Black president.
My favorite teacher died in September—2006. It was a sad occasion, but there was good news, too. Those Tuesday Night Books did a mighty work. The texts helped to transform our thinking and movement in the world. I was especially wiser after my introduction to Howard Thurman, Dr. King’s theologian professor who said, “Follow the grain in your own wood.”
Following my own path has been the way of words. Mostly, I write historical picture books about activists and barrier breakers from forgotten moments in American History. My new book for middle grade and high school readers is Evicted! The Struggle for the Right to Vote (Calkins Creek—Astra Books for Young Readers). It explores the lives of Black sharecroppers in Tennessee, who without celebration, inspired college students like John Lewis and James Foreman to organize Freedom Summer, and champion voting rights in the rural South.
My new book for primary learners is Opal Lee and What It Means To Be Free—The True Story Of The Grandmother of Juneteenth (HarperCollins). This picture book biography highlights the courage of Texan activist, Opal Lee, who walked across the nation collecting one million signatures that inspired American leaders to vote and make Juneteenth a national holiday. In celebration of liberation movements around the world, the biography includes a sweet and puckering recipe for red Juneteenth punch.
Why do I write historical picture books? They help children make informed decisions about what they feel and how to live. Also, if writers don’t record the tragic and triumphant moments of the past, no child will know the truth of history. And without being challenged, unscrupulous adults can say asinine things like, “The Holocaust? That never happened.”
I have given much thought to the rousing book ban movement. Because diverse cultures and the harsh reality of American history make some politicians and parents uncomfortable, they have moved to cancel books, while also gutting literacy and critical thinking skills. As these nefarious plans advance, let us prepare for the devastation. To censor and ban library books from growing minds is analogous to withholding sustenance from a newborn. Without books that are free from propaganda and bias, you stunt a child’s mental growth and development. Intellectual malnourishment and deformity will be sure.
The words of my loud, charismatic teacher still ring true. Ignorance is not bliss. It is deadly! How does ignorance harm? If we teach school or work with children, we see the damage. There are students who bully peers that do not look, speak, or dress like them. In extreme cases, the misguided and uninformed, go a step further to inflict violence on children outside their own culture, race, or beliefs. The result of bullying and violence is trauma. Regret. There is also the looming possibility that victims will grow-on to harm themselves or hurt others.
And what can be said of the bully? Without the intervention of good books, good teachers, and parents, there is a possibility that child’s misguided opinions will harden. The calcified cast can leave us all to suffer, one who grows-up to be an ignorant adult who bullies, sullies truth, and rallies strong against intellectual freedom. It is my opinion that uncensored library collections promoting justice and equality for all, can prevent errant thinking and the misdeeds of bullies, if they encounter such a diet of books when they are young and growing.
As a writer and public educator with 29 years of service, I understand that I am duty-bound to dispense knowledge because ignorance hinders democracy. Ignorance hurts the masses. And to raise young scholars who will be tomorrow’s critical thinkers, freedom workers, and educated voters, students need access to history books that do not color the facts. In the shouting words of my charismatic teacher, Shirley Owens Prince, “Make it plain! Make it plain!” Always with my picture books—that is what I aim to do.
Alice Faye Duncan is the author of two new books—Evicted! The Struggle for the Right to Vote (Calkins Creek—Astra Books for Young Readers) and Opal Lee—The True Story of the Grandmother of Juneteenth (HarperCollins). She is a National Board Educator from the city of Memphis and her website is www.alicefayeduncan.com.