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Tony Messenger: Banning Toni Morrison book only proves her point about the discomfort of language

By Tony Messenger St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Every election cycle, it seems, there is a new way to refer to a group of voters who seem to have all the juice. These are the voters whom elected officials are targeting to put them over the top in close races.

Sometime back it was soccer moms.

Last presidential election it was suburban moms.

This cycle, it seems, public school parents are the target. Finally, I matter. I’ve been a public school parent off and on for going on 30 years. Three decades of back-to-school nights, emails with teachers over lost assignments, meetings with principals over discipline issues, booster club meetings, chaperoned visits to the zoo. All of that work and, for once, I’m in the select focus group of voters who matter.

It’s always Republicans who come up with these things. Some consultant like Frank Luntz develops a poll-tested phrase. The national media runs with it, and Democrats, who can’t agree on what day it is, let alone which voters to target, play catch-up. The Affordable Care Act becomes Obamacare. The safety net becomes socialism. Environmental protections become job-killing regulations. Rinse. Repeat.

Parents are the new goose that laid the golden election egg. Well, as Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of “The 1619 Project,” so aptly pointed out during a recent appearance on Meet the Press, the actual target is “white” parents. More specifically, white parents who are aggrieved by racial equity; white parents who would convince a local school board to, for instance, ban the ground-breaking book, “The Bluest Eye,” by acclaimed American author Toni Morrison.

That’s what happened last week, as the Wentzville School Board voted 4-3, against the recommendation of a review committee, to ban Morrison’s masterpiece about a Black girl in the Great Depression dealing with racism and sexism, and struggling with her own self-worth.

In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature, for her full career of using language to challenge racial and gender stereotypes, as she did in her 1970 book that currently sits at No. 9 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. The ALA has been keeping statistics on such challenges since 1990, so, while the current book-banning craze fueled by Republican fear-mongering over racial equity is dangerous, it’s not particularly new.

In 1994, as a parent, I was involved in beating back such an effort at my children’s elementary school in Colorado. A group of white parents who identified as Christians came to the school’s site-based management committee – I was a member – and asked us to remove a series of books from the school’s young adult readers’ section.

It’s almost quaint thinking back to those controversial days more than a quarter-century ago, in light of the legislation pushed by Missouri Republicans calling for a so-called “Parental Bill of Rights” to bring more transparency to public schools. As parents, we had then, and still do, all the things folks like Attorney General Eric Schmitt are pretending we don’t have now.

To read a book in the young adult section – books by R.L. Stine, Judy Blume, J.R.R. Tolkien – students needed a permission slip signed by their parents. The school district maintained a list of the books in that section, available to any parent. There was a well-established system by which a parent could protest the inclusion of a book – or any element of the curriculum – all the way up to the school board.

No books were banned at my kids’ school that year, but efforts like it happen in school districts and libraries every year.

There is an uptick in 2022 because Republicans are fueling a push to rewrite history, highlighted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ effort to pass a bill that would ban any teaching about discrimination that would cause white people “discomfort.”

Were she alive, Morrison would see the irony in the fact that the same Republicans who falsely called it censorship when Twitter and Facebook banned some politicians from using their platforms, now are pushing their own actual government censorship bills aimed at banning any content that brings them discomfort.

As Morrison said in her Nobel lecture so many years ago, the discomfort of language is the point.

“Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed,” Morrison said. “It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”

Today’s Republican masters seek to erase history by first banning the very challenging language that opens our minds to new ideas. We parents, with our newfound voting-bloc power, need to rise up and make sure they don’t get away with it.

Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.