For some time now I’ve wanted to weigh in on the debate over book banning.
That opening came Sunday when I stumbled upon a report on “CBS Sunday Morning” about the widespread efforts to ban books and,critics charge, stifle free speech — the most pivotal of this nation’s First Amendment rights.
As it turned out, the eight-minute TV segment, which was aptly titled “War on Words,” was pretty sterile television viewing. I tuned in, hoping to see a climactic showdown like the one, nearly a century ago, between H.L. Mencken and J. Frank Chase.
Mencken, a legendary Baltimore Sun newspaper columnist, was the irascible editor of The American Mercury, an irreverent, New York-based literary magazine. Chase was a Methodist minister and leader of the New England Watch and Ward Society, which tried to impose its “censorious moral beliefs” on Mencken’s magazine.
Chase’s group objected to a story in the April 1926 edition of the Mercury about a small-town prostitute and banned its sale in Boston. When booksellers took the magazine off their shelves, Mencken announced that he would personally go to Boston Common (scene of one of the first battles of the American Revolution) to sell his magazine. He was met there by Chase, who purchased a copy and then immediately had Mencken arrested for selling the banned book. A judge promptly acquitted him.
That was the main event in a 1926 clash between an opponent and proponent of book banning. What “CBS Sunday Morning” broadcast this past weekend was an undercard.
This fight over book banning is one of the most visible manifestations of the cultural warfare being waged in this land. And, as in 1926, it is a fight that journalists should not shy away from.
In the current book-banning battles, New York Times writer and Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are the linear successors to Mencken and Chase.
They are — even though “CBS Sunday Morning” didn’t acknowledge it — the titans of a fight that recently has expanded to include attacks on efforts by right-wing legislators and education officials to censor what school-age children can read what’s been written about, and by, LGBTQ people.
Defending the LGBTQ community from the attacks of right-wingers who want to strike any mention of them from school libraries and classrooms is a battle that must be fought to keep this country from sliding deeper into a homophobic bog.
But more than anything else, the core of today’s fight over book banning is an effort to hold on to a warped history of America. And in this battle, DeSantis versus Hannah-Jones is the main event.
Jones is the creator and principal author of “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times Magazine account of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to this country in 1619 — and a 400-year history of the Black experience in America. Critics of this work, which initially comprised an entire New York Times Magazine edition and was later published as a book, podcast and children’s book, say it is badly flawed history.
They have been supported in their attack on Hannah-Jones, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, by a group of historians whose objections to her work were soundly rebuffed by a published response from the Times’ editor-in-chief.
“No matter how you feel about it, a free society doesn’t ban books. A free society does not do that,” Hannah-Jones said during an October 2022 appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
But last year, DeSantis explained his push for passage of a bill outlawing the teaching of any aspect of ”The 1619 Project” in Florida schools by countering that Hannah-Jones wrongly argued that protecting the institution of slavery was “one of the primary reasons” why the American colonists revolted against British rule.
Instead, DeSantis offered a competing theory about the influence that the American Revolution had on slavery. It was, he said, the “American Revolution that caused people to question slavery. Nobody had questioned it before we decided as Americans that we are endowed by our creator with unalienable rights and that we are all created equal.”
That simple-minded argument is blind to the Constitution’s three-fifths amendment and the fact that many of this country’s founding fathers enslaved people.
If for no other reason, the competing views that Hannah-Jones and DeSantis have about ”The 1619 Project” — and the widespread censorship its publication has generated — should have dominated the “CBS Sunday Morning” show’s report on book banning.
That it didn’t ought to make real defenders of the First Amendment want to stand up and holler.
DeWayne Wickham is the public editor for The Baltimore Banner.