Some cynical soul once said something that has resounded throughout the Black community for years and that is, “If you want to hide something from Black people, put it a book!” Though this statement may ruffle a few feathers, it sometimes appears to be true. A lot of people just don’t like to read. This situation is concerning, because reading is the one thing that can help liberate people. It gives them immediate access to knowledge passed down through the ages. It is a communication tool that transcends time and place, and there are those who know the power that it has to move people toward action.
This last statement is evident in a recent occurrence at Danville Correctional Center. According to an online Portside article by Dara Sharif (for the Root) entitled “It’s ‘Racial’: Prison Banned Books on Black History,” officials at Danville Correctional Center removed 200 books from a prison library and banned for use in the education program “several classic books of African-American history.” Further, according to the article, 3 out of every 4 inmates in Illinois prisons are Black, yet an Illinois prison banned an inmate education program from using books discussing Black history or empowerment due to their “racial” content.
Banned books include“The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois, the anti-slavery novel“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and the memoir of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Also included were“Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, written in the 1800s and “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” As a result of being under fire, the Illinois Department of Corrections’ new Acting Director Rob Jeffreys said things could have been handled better and that the state welcomed books about “The African-American experience.” IDOC is now in the process of making “long overdue” revisions to the review procedure.
Whatever happens, the fact that these books were removed or not allowed to be reviewed sends huge signals to the inmate population and to the Black community as a whole. These books did not peddle vile content: they could provide inmates with a solid philosophical foundation for developing new modes of behavior that could possibly keep them from making decisions about negative behavior that could cause them to end up back in prison once released.
It is no secret that a solid educational program can help reduce recidivism. The books that were withheld from the inmates provide powerful ideas that incarcerated persons can use that could change their lives. Admittedly, the new Acting Director said, “I believe expanding educational and vocational opportunities is a key to breaking the cycle of incarceration for thousands of Illinois’ families.” It remains to be seen how sincere those words are.
In related incidents, Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book entitled “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness” has been banned by prisons in Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina and elsewhere. Why are prison personnel so afraid of this book and the ones banned by IDOC? Could it be that they are afraid of the impact that these formidable tools will have on unleashing the mental power of those that they want to continue to control and use for free labor? Whatever the case, it is important for Black people to understand that enemies of the community understand how important it is for the written word offered by Black authors to be accessed by the general population as well as by those behind bars. Education has long been considered a threat by those who want to keep the community down. Once upon a time, it was actually illegal to teach Black people to read or to allow them to have access to education. The challenge now will be to get those who prefer to get their information from quick Facebook posts or from Instagram and other online venues to develop a taste for more formal literary offerings. This includes reading full length books, newspapers, journals, and more. There is another popular phrase connected with the idea of the importance of reading: Readers are Leaders!” This is so, so true, and it would behoove us to ensure that our young people understand that self-education through selective reading programs can go a long way toward enhancing their quality of life and, by extension, help bring Black communities to higher levels of achievement. A Luta Continua.