"They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching god."
It took 160 pages to reach that line. I eagerly waited for Zora Neale Hurston to reveal to me the titular meaning of her widely celebrated, but now banned book. For so long I had wanted to read great Black women authors, but had put it off. That is until a man from Florida had told me that it was not worth anything, let alone my time, to rest my eyes the profundity dripping from every sentence of the 1937 novel.
A book ban seemed like the perfect time to get started on my literary bucket list.
The book was a gift from the African American Policy Forum given out ahead of a panel discussion, "Whitewashing Black Studies: The Fight for African American Studies in the Era of Racial Backlash" headlined by its Executive Director Kimberlé Crenshaw and hosted by Columbia Law School. I decided to relive my grad school days with a study session at the university's main library. But long COVID fatigue made it a struggle. I contemplated heading home when an event reminder email buzzed on my smartphone. "The first 50 people to arrive at the event will receive a free book from our Books Unbanned: From Freedom Riders to Freedom Readers campaign." Energy from the chance at a free book had suddenly made light of my load and I sauntered over to the law school building.
Out of the neatly organized pile, I searched for a title that enticed, and most importantly one that I had not already owned, but failed to open. "The Bluest Eye." Check. "Just Mercy," "Heavy: An American Memoir." Hmm, maybe! What else? "The Color Purple." Check.
We were able to choose two titles, but my eyes were arrested by an image of a crowned black woman surrounded by gold, chin tilted ever so slightly toward the collaged heaven artfully crafted on the cover. "Their Eyes Were Watching God" scribbled beneath her in white permanent marker. I immediately snatched up my opportunity before someone in line behind me made up their mind.
The event was a response to the recent efforts in Florida and beyond to ban books that dared to shine light on the margins for fear, the panelists explained, of admitting their centrality to the American narrative of social progress.
I read the first page of Hurston's words, which beckoned me to read the next few sentences until I vowed to read at least a chapter a day until I was finished, lest I let another book collect dust on my shelf. Somewhere around page 70 I was scheming to cancel my streaming services. I'd need the time to feed my renewed desire to read all the Black classics I had always meant to read. A book ban seemed like the perfect time to get started on my literary bucket list.
Never again, I vowed, would a Black elder be bewildered by my lack of exposure to Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, their predecessors or their contemporaries. And for that I had to thank a power-seeking white man from Florida for telling me where not to look, who in doing so told me and millions of others exactly where my attention deserved to be.
Human history shows us how often men who seek power do so with a god complex. It makes me wonder what type of god that white man from Florida seeks to be.
Now here I am, a few weeks later and I've lived a lifetime having joined Janie Crawford on a decades-long, wayward journey towards herself in southern Florida. Thrust by her grandmother towards the institution of marriage for a semblance of protection, I followed along the course of three marriages. Nanny, the sole relative in Janie's life, was motivated by memories of her own rape by her master at the end of the Civil War and the consequential birth and tragic life of Janie's absent mother. Each marriage was successively better, but none were without their own sadness. Hurston revealed the internal triumph of Janie's fall from grace as she grew into her own mind and decided to finally live a life worth remembering.
My innocuous deed of acquiring knowledge through the written word, 157 years ago would have been brutally punished for not only the act, but the ability to do so.
Of all the intricacies of slavery that haunt me, of all the activities deemed beyond the realm of the enslaved, the anti-literacy laws of 1831 always struck me as the most curious. They were a response to slave rebellions. I've been a proficient reader since I was a child – from making up words and reading books upside down as a toddler to having an eighth grade reading level in 12th grade. It never sat right with me. Now decades later into my own saga and little over a century and a half after slavery in the United States, we find ourselves once again in the land of the free debating words and Black people. In the home of the brave codifying fear of discomfort towards our collective history.
"All gods dispense suffering without reason," Zora writes. Human history shows us how often men who seek power do so with a god complex. It makes me wonder what type of god that white man from Florida seeks to be. Because we've seen throughout time the ends that begin with the kinds of words he and others speak. "Half gods are worshiped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood," Hurston explains with a deep knowing that ought not be forgotten.
The beauty of exploring reality through literature and other forms of artistic human expression is that we don't have to live lessons to learn them. We don't have to wait for blood to be drawn to learn pain, nor do we have to wait for history to repeat itself to see why such rhetoric should be a political non-starter, if we make a habit of opening and discussing books written before our time.
Behind the veil of parental rights, is the resurrected mantle of old anti-intellectualism made modern.
Even so, as we watch attempts to codify the erasure of trans people and the history of African Americans, we're already at the precipice of reverting to a history long sworn would go unrepeated. The formation of education as a battleground has been decades in the making.
Behind the veil of parental rights, is the resurrected mantle of old anti-intellectualism made modern. The oft-bemoaned and cursed "liberal education" originated with and was championed by another ambitious governor and later commander-in-chief, President Ronald Reagan. Before becoming the standard-bearer of the Republican brand of trickle-down economics and bootstrapped public services, his state of California was embroiled in the nation's first scholarly battle for ethnic studies. The five-month standoff in 1968 between a multicultural coalition of students and San Francisco State University for the teaching of "third world history and black studies'' would result in the nation's first ethnic studies program.
In 1967, National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. wrote, "When asked to document his case against educational excesses Governor Reagan brightly observed that he did not see why the state should need to support courses in 'how to burn the governor in effigy.'" Buckley continues, "Reagan has naysayed the superstition that any spending in the name of higher education ought (a) to be approved of, and (b) to be exempt from public scrutiny."
"It's not going to stop with Black studies, it will continue to all the other subjects and knowledges that are midwifed and have been midwifed by Black studies."
As president, Reagan would turn this position into policy which led to the slashing of state allocations for higher education and became the hallmark of his tenure, which coincided with the "intellectual frivolity" of nationwide implementation of ethnic studies. This would create a new, predatory loan industry to meet the demand for higher learning, creating today's student debt crisis, stagnating the progress of several generations of students, reducing their participation in the economy.
Today, this anti-intellectualism takes the form of omissions to sooth right-wing fear of a shameful past. That means the banning of books like "The Storyteller," an account of the rise of Nazi Germany and the omission of race from the story Rosa Parks' refusal to sit in the back of the bus and barring a film about Ruby Bridges and desegregation.
During the panel at Columbia Law, Roderick Ferguson, Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Yale University warned against the "denuding of African American studies of the things that degrade." "It's not going to stop with Black studies, it will continue to all the other subjects and knowledges that are midwifed and have been midwifed by Black studies. I just want to put that on the record."
In the forward of my copy of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" written by Edwidge Danticat (another Black woman I'm often directed to read), she makes clear the power of what I've just read and guides me deeper. Danticat cites Alice Walker in reminding readers that "a people do not throw their geniuses away." A citation composed in 2000 with the prescience that accompanies old knowledge brought forward. I know now what I must do: Keep those books open that others would rather have closed. I am a Freedom Reader.
I cannot think of anything more American than determining something for one's self. But that requires that one actually grapples with that which they are told they should not. "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching god." What book bans are trying to bury are actually seeds and the warm winds of compassion and the light of day are coming. Now I can see in the dark place that we've returned to. Anti-intellectualism and the counterculture it is inspiring will prove to be rich soil for the next generation of progress to cultivate.
Freedom is not a permanent state of being, but a continuous action.
With my newfound appetite for the written word, I've now turned to devouring Hurston's "Barracoon," the story derived from interviews conducted in 1927 with Cudjo Lewis, the last surviving "cargo" transported from Africa. In it she describes the slave trade as a parade of "youth on the first leg of their journey from humanity," and I can't help but think Professor Roderick Ferguson's description of African American studies as being "designed for the rescue of the human."
My mind oscillates between the story of Cudjo Lewis' history and Professor Ferguson's resonant warning and about the current efforts to suppress history as "fascist degradation of human beings." It is our duty then to "figure out ways to interrupt the social reproduction of cowardice" as he advises and seek humanity in all of its multitudes in the face of those who wish to delegate knowledge and thus the possibilities of freedom and equity.
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Banned words question the merits and methods of domination, and render them obsolete through understanding. I won't go back, which I'm sure is the real fear for those who know no other way than domination to secure a future.
At the risk of an ancestral side-eye from Hurston, who insisted that the lives and stories Black people be considered outside of relation to or reaction of white provocation, I'd like to thank that power-seeking man from Florida, for continuing the American tradition of telling free people what they can't do only to spark a movement. If only to remind us that freedom is not a permanent state of being, but a continuous action and that the American dream actually requires that we be awake to enable our enjoyment of its promise.