It’s no secret that certain stories, voices and groups have been silenced throughout history. Books have been banned, stories have been pulled and voices have been hushed for the comfort of one group.
When the U.S. was first founded, the Founding Fathers drafted the Bill of Rights, detailing every right Americans would have while they lived in the States. One of those rights was the freedom of speech. Every American would have the right to freely express any emotion they had through songs, books, poems, and other forms of art.
Just so long as those thoughts, ideas and feelings didn’t offend anyone.
America is a country built on the idea of freedom in every aspect of life. But there have been times where that freedom is not experienced by every group. When Black people were removed from their homes and brought to the Americas, they also brought plenty of stories, songs, and voices with them.
But by the time those people reached the Americas, those stories were gone.
Black people were forced to assimilate into American culture.
Of course, the voices of Black people never completely went silenced. As slavery and oppression wore on in America, the cries for freedom got louder.
In August 1831, Virginia pastor Nat Turner led a bloody revolt in Southampton County, Virginia that lasted around 24 hours. The revolt killed 55 white people and led to the execution of 55 enslaved people. However, this rebellion did more than just violence.
It led to sweeping reform across Virginia and the United States. Lawmakers wanted to prevent enslaved people from being able to assemble and become educated.
The very freedoms the Bill of Rights promised every American were stripped away from Black people.
At the time of this revolt, only 10% of enslaved people in the South were literate. But this was still too high of a rate for slave owners. Literacy gave Black people power. With power came knowledge. With knowledge came rebellions.
“An educated enslaved person was a dangerous person [to slave owners],” said Clarence Lusane, a professor at Howard University.
In April 1831, Virginia lawmakers passed a law that forbade any gatherings to teach freed African Americans how to read or write. In 1833, lawmakers in Alabama stated that any person that tried to teach a free or enslaved Black person would be fined no less than $250.
If this law was passed in 2022, the fine would be no less than $8,367.
It became increasingly clear that the fear of rebellion and abolitionism fueled these laws. White people could control illiterate Black people. They could dictate what Black people learned, what they viewed as right or wrong, what they actually knew about the world around them.
“Anti-literacy laws were written in response to the rise of abolitionism in the north,” author Patrick Breen said.
Black people kept learning how to read and write despite the consequences they would face. Some slave owners encouraged this as well. The more educated a Black person was, the more sophisticated jobs they received.
The laws and codes put in place were just a bandage on a gaping wound. Nothing could stop enslaved and free African Americans from becoming literate. Lawmakers in the South could no longer constrict Black people’s view on the world.
“Literacy promotes thought and raises consciousness,” Sarah Roth, professor and creator of The Nat Turner Project, said. “It helps you to get outside of your own cultural constraints and think about things from a totally different angle.”
Literacy became one of the greatest tools in ending slavery in America. However, it didn’t end racially charged censorship in America.
With more and more Black people seeking the highest levels of education and creativity, censorship efforts also grew.
The rise of the civil rights movement spurred many Black leaders, writers and teachers to the forefront of change. Black stories and voices were, once again, an important talking point in American politics.
Malcolm X was one of the leading voices. His opinions on non-peaceful protesting, Black nationalism and Black pride dominated much of the Civil Rights movement. His words led to him being followed, attacked and eventually assassinated.
Just like they tried to do during his life, white people tried to censor Malcolm’s words posthumously.
Malcolm, along with writer Alex Haley, wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book detailed Malcolm’s life, death, political views and the pivotal trip to Mecca. It was an important piece of Black history and media.
That didn’t stop people from trying to limit the novel’s significance.
In 2014, teachers at Public School 201 in Flushing, New York told fourth grade students that Malcolm was a “bad” and “violent” activist. The teachers also forbade the students from writing about Malcolm.
About 43% of the 477 students at the school in 2014 were Black.
Parents were upset about the matter, stating that the teachers were imposing their personal opinions on the students. The department of education in Flushing responded to the parents’ concerns.
“Malcolm X is a historical figure and a hero to many New Yorkers that we believe should be celebrated in our schools,” agency spokesman Devon Puglia said.
Erasing pieces of Black history isn’t a new trend, but in 2021, it found a new target: critical race theory.
The term “critical race theory” was created more than 40 years ago by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado to explore the intersectionality of race and law in America. It was designed to examine American liberal approaches to racial justice.
However, CRT rose to mainstream notoriety when American conservatives began the fight against teaching it.
Schools stopped teaching certain aspects of Black history. Chapters about slavery and the civil rights movement were removed from textbooks. Conservative organizations criticized the validity of critical race theory.
“When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,” the Heritage Foundation claimed.
Arguably the biggest issue that has come out of banning critical race theory is knowing where the line is. That line being free speech. Where does limiting the teaching of CRT end and limiting free speech begin?
Or is limiting CRT also limiting free speech?
Timothy Messler-Kruse is a professor of ethnic studies at Bowling Green University in Ohio. The state legislature is close to passing House Bill 327. The bill defines several ideas that shouldn’t be taught in any public school or university.
Most of the concepts in the bill — like teaching that one race is superior or inferior to others — are ideas Kruse teaches against. But, as the bill reads on, the ideas become increasingly more vague.
The vagueness of the bill reaches over into other schools of thought like psychology and research in racist practices. The crusade to limit CRT has now — whether intentionally or not — become a crusade of limiting diverse academia.
“Administrators, among the most risk-averse people in the known universe, will err on the side of canceling programs and courses,” Kruse said. “Only the brave and the foolish will teach ethnic studies in Ohio in the future.”
Despite being almost 200 years apart, the goals of lawmakers in 1831 and 2022 remain the same: limit different views of culture and the world. When one takes a critical lens of the actions of these lawmakers, one thing becomes clear.
These laws are designed to make white people feel comfortable and for Black people to have no voice.
Censorship — no matter what form it takes — chooses what stories are more important. It chooses what voices matter.
It chooses what race matters.