When Your Own Book Gets Caught Up in the Censorship Wars

Sometimes, my friends would joke that the book would almost certainly face the wrath of the right wing, as if it were something to look forward to. They figured a polarized response would be good for publicity and sales. But that prediction upset me, and we worked hard to prevent it from happening. When the book did eventually win some fancy stickers—including a Pulitzer Prize—I hoped teachers would consider it worthy of being read in their classrooms.

We arrived at Whitehaven on a pleasant Thursday morning. The building was antiquated, all beiges and browns. Students milled around, wearing clear backpacks—a requirement to deter them from bringing weapons to campus. Near the school’s entrance was a big poster celebrating some of the most accomplished students, who had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships. The hallways were lined with senior pictures of previous classes. The farther you walked into the school, the whiter those pictures got.

The school district where Floyd was educated, in Houston, had experienced a similar demographic shift. In the seventies and eighties, white families had fled for the suburbs and other areas, taking their tax dollars with them. The district struggled to find quality teachers and had trouble meeting new educational standards imposed by the state. As we were walking through Whitehaven, Jason Sharif, who had started a nonprofit to help revitalize the surrounding community, told us that the school hadn’t been able to update its science labs in decades. It, too, had to contend with state intervention if it did not meet certain academic standards. At our talk, these similarities were the kinds of connections we had been instructed not to make.

Students filed into the school’s auditorium, and they looked eager to see us. Maybe they were interested in what we had to say; maybe they were just happy to get out of class. I began to discuss how we reported the book. We told them about interviewing more than four hundred people, from Floyd’s friends and family to the President of the United States. I told them we had learned that Floyd was a man of many ambitions, but that he did not find much grace in the institutions that were supposed to help him succeed. There were holes in the social safety net, I said. And those holes were often there because of political choices that were designed to work against Black people. Then I stopped.

“We’re not going to speak for very long because we really want to get to your questions,” I told them. We had expected an open forum, but instead five students had been pre-selected to interview us. Their questions had been vetted and pre-written. The first student, a young woman in glasses who complimented me on my bubbly personality, looked at us and said, “Who was your audience for this book?”

I paused. Briefly, I considered using this an opening to talk about freedom of the press, feeling gagged by the school district, and the long history of denying Black people access to books and reading. (Hillery Thomas Stewart, Floyd’s great-great-grandfather, was a part of that history—he lost five hundred acres of land through tax schemes and paperwork he was told to sign but could not read.) Instead, I told them about my experience reading Carmichael’s book and how much it meant to me as a teen-ager. “I wrote this book for you,” I said.

When the event was over, Sharif announced that the book was available for free. (Penguin Random House had donated thirty-six copies.) Students’ hands shot up, but, because the book wasn’t allowed at the school, Sharif told them they would have to make their way to the mall, where his nonprofit was distributing them. We took a selfie with the students from the stage, after which I had hoped to discuss the restrictions with the assistant superintendent for the district’s high schools, who was in attendance. By the time we finished taking the photo, she was gone.

I had envisioned book bans as modern morality plays—white, straight parents and lawmakers trying to shield their children from the more complex realities portrayed in books by queer people or people of color. But what happened in Memphis wasn’t so simple. Almost everyone we interacted with from the district was Black. No one denied the existence of systemic racism. Their schools were among the first to pilot the A.P. African American studies course and, later this year, they plan to send students to the National Civil Rights Museum in eighth and eleventh grade.

The staff also had to make choices. They were operating in a state whose governor warned teachers to “not teach things that inherently divide or pit either Americans against Americans or people groups against people groups.” Defying that warning could mean losing your job.

Six days after our trip to Whitehaven, Cathryn Stout, the spokesperson for the school district, e-mailed Tolu and me “to apologize for the miscommunication and misinformation surrounding your recent visit.” A reporter from Chalkbeat had been asking questions about what had happened, and she insisted that something must have been garbled during the event planning. The district did not believe in controlling our speech, she claimed, nor would they have objected to us reading from the book.

Stout defended prohibiting the book itself, on the ground that it was not appropriate for people under the age of eighteen. She cited restrictions placed on hip-hop artists, such as Yo Gotti, who have spoken to students but aren’t permitted to perform their music. Gotti’s most famous song is about women sending him nudes; the comparison to our work made little sense. I asked what specifically made the book so inappropriate.

Stout then admitted that no one involved in the decision had actually read it. The district’s academic department didn’t have time, she said. A staff person in the office searched for it in a library database, noting that the American Library Association had classified it as adult literature. That was enough to make the call.

I described this rationale to Donna Seaman, the adult-books editor for Booklist, the A.L.A.’s publication for reviews. She told me the Memphis district’s reasoning seemed “bizarre.” According to her, the “adult books” classification is meant to indicate books of a certain level of sophistication—something not intentionally crafted for children or teen-agers. “This is not to say a sophisticated young person who is interested should not read the book,” Seaman told me. When I checked, many lodestars of the high-school curriculum—“1984,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Macbeth”—were also deemed “adult.”

I told Stout that I was disappointed that the decision-making had been so superficial. “I hear you,” she said. But she also blamed Brooks, at C.B.U., who had not forcefully protested the decision. Brooks told me that it felt fruitless to try, given all the pressures the school district was under because of the new state laws. He was just trying to put on programming as amicably as possible.

These were the reverberating effects of censorship laws: an academic department in a majority-Black school system casually rejecting a book about the life of George Floyd; nonprofit groups capitulating to avoid causing controversy; writers having to resort to back channels to get information to Black people in the South.

The next day, Stout sent another e-mail. She wanted us to know that the school district had decided to order copies of “His Name Is George Floyd,” so it could be placed under academic review. If the book is deemed appropriate, the district plans to put it in the Whitehaven High School library. She had no idea how much time it would take to make the determination. ♦

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