The opening of Tariq Ali’s historical novel Shadows of the pomegranate tree, which takes place in Spain during the Reconquista, describes Christian soldiers, acting on the orders of Cardinal Ximénezde Cisneros, head of the Spanish Inquisition, storming the libraries and homes of Moorish Granada.
They grab some 5,000 irreplaceable philosophical and theological works and toss them (medical manuscripts were exempt) into a huge bonfire in central Granada as residents, tears streaming down their faces, are forced to watch them.
From King Jehoiakim of Judah who burned a parchment written by Prophet Jeremiah, to Roman Catholic Emperor Jovian reducing the Antioch library to ashes, to the library in Nalanda, India, a vast repository of Buddhist learning, cremated by the Muslims, to the Nazis burning “a German books on the Opernplatz in Berlin, in Harry potter books igniting in New Mexico because they were believed by arsonists to encourage Satanism, the burning of books has been an anti-intellectual plague for millennia.
Book burning is not exclusive to any specific ideology. Over the centuries, too many people have succumbed to supremacist impulses – left, right, authoritarian, anarchist – all attempting to extinguish the humanity, religion and culture of peoples who do not look like or think like them.
The first book burned in our thirteen colonies took place in 1651 when the Puritans banned and burned a book criticizing Puritan Calvinism, The meritorious price of our redemption, and tried its author, William Pynchon, for heresy.
In America today, continuing attempts by the right to make the Other invisible as part of a project to deprive the right to vote and marginalize communities of color include the attempt to censor and ban books and artwork that challenge entrenched white supremacist narratives.
Today’s anti-intellectual fanatics have weapons more sophisticated than matches.
Together, they storm on social media and write whistling letters to the editor. They organize themselves as parents and “concerned” citizens and band together to come forward either for local school boards or to join forces to confront and intimidate school board volunteers who refuse to comply. Together, they apparently believe that the main purpose of education is to make people who believe as they do feel good about themselves.
Together, they want to limit what we teach schoolchildren.
People bemoaning the retirement of Aunt Jemima, Native American mascots and Dr. Seuss’ six-pounder would prefer to ban The Hate U Give, Captain Underpants, stamped from the start and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Beloved than teaching their children slavery, Ahmaud Arbery, lynchings, Tulsa, George Floyd, the red line, all-white country clubs, MS St. Louis, genocide of indigenous peoples, systemic racism, Medgar Evers , Jim Crow and the suppression of voters.
Today, they are so determined to remain the exclusive narrators of America’s history that they seem desperate to retain power, even ready to intimidate school administrators into censoring student art projects. .
This week, a letter published in The Portsmouth Herald slammed a high school student in York, Maine for creating an art project based on a young adult book she read titled A very large expanse of sea, by Tahereh Mafi.
Its author wrote: “The [report] about the York High School pupil and his art project should serve as an illustration of how critical race theory is actually presented in schools. It was very sad to see a young woman presenting her country in such a negative light… And it all started with a book she read in English class about an immigrant child and her struggles against racism.
The writer of the letter twisted both the CRT, a decades-old form of legal analysis that argues that race is a social construct, not just the result of individual prejudices, and the work of the student.
The artist did not present her country in a negative light, she reflected the truth of a nation struggling to confront the elements of racism and exclusion that persist in our public square. The teenager was inspired to do what true patriots are called to do: face injustice.
The book she read is not about an immigrant child. He is a native American who struggles with racism, identity and a boyfriend, all of which are neither new nor unusual experiences for our children, especially those of color.
I also read A very large expanse of sea. It’s a powerful story about the coming of age of Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim high school student wearing hijab in post 9/11 America who tells her Global Perspectives teacher:
“I’m tired as hell, Mr. Jordan… I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m sick of being patient with bigots. I’m sick of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like shit all the time. I’m sick of begging everyone to understand that not all people of color are the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same … I’m just – I’m ‘I’m sick of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is this my job? “
We should all be fed up with it.
Racism persists because there are communities among us that prefer to indoctrinate children with parish fears and prejudices of the Other rather than educating them to embrace the richness and beauty of a diverse and pluralistic world.
What is at stake today is whether America will be defined by privilege or prejudice, history or hysteria, knowledge or ignorance. By the embrace of America’s promise or by fear of the Other.
Shirin says she told a friend that “… the fanatics and the racists have always been there, and he said he honestly never saw them like that, that he never thought they were. could be like that, and I said yes, I know. I said that’s the way privilege works.
This is how white privilege works.
(Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His reviews are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)