NEW YORK June 13, 2023 — PEN America responded today to the removal of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed memoir Between the World and Me from an advanced placement course in South Carolina, calling it “an outrageous act of government censorship.”
As reported, earlier this spring students in the Chapin High School classroom reported a teacher for including Coates’ memoir and two related short videos in her argument essay unit. The unit, designed in preparation for the AP Language test, which is accepted for credit by many colleges, included questions such as: “Do you think racism is a pervasive problem in America? Why or why not?”
Several students wrote to the school board about the class, saying it made them feel “ashamed to be Caucasian” and “in shock that she would do something illegal like that…I am pretty sure a teacher talking about systemic racism is illegal in South Carolina.” South Carolina passed an educational gag order last year that banned “divisive concepts” related to race and sex.
In response, Jeremy C. Young, freedom to learn program director, released the following statement:
“This is an outrageous act of government censorship and a textbook example of how educational gag orders corrupt free inquiry in the classroom. In a course designed to be taught at the college level, students complained that a teacher assigning a National Book Award-winning volume about race was “illegal in South Carolina.” Instead of defending the teacher’s right to teach this material, the school board sided with the students and censored the curriculum.
As with the AP African American Studies course in Florida – which also involved the politically-motivated removal of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings – government attempts to limit discourse and expression in high school classrooms have spilled over into early college programs. Educational gag orders in South Carolina and elsewhere are doing exactly what they are designed to do: censor teachers who dare to discuss race and gender in class. Anyone who believes these laws are harmless, or are designed to prevent indoctrination, should look no further than the Lexington-Richland School District to realize what these laws truly are: a license to silence students’ education.”
PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans nationwide as well as the spread of educational censorship legislation to nearly half of all states. Collectively, these bills attempt to put certain ideas and concepts out of bounds in K-12 classrooms, and even in college classrooms. Texas, Florida, and Missouri lead with the most books banned. Depriving students of literary works flies in the face of basic constitutional freedoms, and PEN America is suing Escambia County, Florida, over its book bans.
Black and LGBTQ+ authors and books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities have been disproportionately affected in the book bans documented by PEN America in the last year and a half. The wave of book banning is worse than anything seen in decades, with PEN America counting more than 4,000 book bans since the fall of 2021.
About PEN America
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org