OPINION: Those Seeking to Censor History, Ban Books & Shutter Libraries Are Not Patriots, But Despots

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The following opinion piece, by Lisa E. Davis of Maplewood, was written for publication as part of the South Orange-Maplewood observance of Freedom to Learn National Day of Action. Find out more about local events here.

As philosopher George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Today is a National Day of Action for the Freedom to Learn, designed to unite everyone who believes in truth, including activists and racial justice allies in the fight against the College Board’s and the state of Florida’s attack on the African American Studies Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum.

Attacks on knowledge generally, and African-American history specifically, are an attempt to erase the gains of the 20th century and return this country to one of patriarchal white supremacist rule. The effort to erase African-American history is a frontal assault on democracy, since the study of African American history requires students to confront the contradiction between the ideals of freedom for all our Declaration of Independence and the founders’ decision to deny that freedom to an entire group of people and extract forced labor from them for more than two centuries.  

The fight over the content of the College Board’s AP African-American Studies course is part and parcel of a broader fight against an authoritarian assault on education. Twenty-one states have laws banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which they have mischaracterized as any study of Black people. Sweeping book bans are being enacted across the country that empower one right wing individual to challenge books they admit they have not read, resulting in the wholesale removal of books by or about Black people, or about LGBTQ people (or even penguins). Efforts to restrict education about race and racism have been introduced in 36 states; evidence that the effort to erase Black history is not limited to the former states of the Confederacy.

An honest accounting of Black history requires an acknowledgment of the central and ongoing role of Black people in perfecting this union and gaining freedom, not only for themselves, but for all Americans. It requires an acknowledgment of the contributions of Black Americans to culture and innovation that power American exceptionalism and it requires a study of African civilizations, so that students understand that Black people were not “slaves,” but “enslaved people” ripped from rich and complex societies on their native continent.

Black children who grow up without that knowledge are susceptible to the belief that structural inequities like the racial wealth gap are the result of some inherent deficiency in Black people, rather than the result of targeted actions and policy decisions. They will not learn how the deliberate destruction of thriving Black communities from Tulsa to Rosewood and the prohibition on reinvestment in those communities through federally mandated redlining created the crisis conditions of many modern urban neighborhoods. Non-Black children who grow up without that history are at risk of becoming adults who mistakenly view the presence of white people at the top of a racial hierarchy as evidence of their superiority.

New Jersey has been a front runner in recognizing the importance of teaching African American History, passing the Amistad Law in 2002, which mandated the integration of African American History into the social studies curriculum.  Unfortunately, the law was seldom enforced until 2019, when Governor Murphy’s administration announced that districts that failed to comply with the law would lose points on their state evaluations. Now is the time for Governor Murphy and the Department of Education to double down and show their support for the importance of African American History by pressing the College Board to fully reinstate the elements of its AP course removed in an effort to appease Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It is critical that educational institutions, from the College Board, to local school boards, resist the pressure to distort facts and suppress texts in a misguided effort to mollify the opponents of an honest accounting of African-American history, LGBTQ history or the history of any marginalized group of Americans. They should recognize that demagogues like Ron DeSantis seek hollowed out curriculum specifications that “demean, malign and caricature Black life and the study of it.”

After all, even our deeply flawed Founding Fathers, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to James Madison and John Adams understood that the free flow of information and widespread public education were essential to maintaining a thriving democracy. People who seek to censor history, ban books, and shutter libraries are not patriots, but despots. We need to fight them with everything we’ve got.


Lisa E. Davis is a member of the Board of Trustees of SOMA Action and a parent of two children educated in South Orange/Maplewood schools.


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