By Julia Luz Betancourt / Truthout
While I was studying United States history as a junior in high school, my teacher (who had repeatedly shared with students that her favorite president was Thomas Jefferson) described Sally Hemings as his mistress. Hemings, an African American woman who was enslaved by Jefferson, did not have the legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances due to her legal status. In other words, in the eyes of the law, an enslaved woman could never be sexually assaulted because her body did not belong to her, it belonged to her owner as property.
Despite this clear denial of human rights and bodily autonomy, that did not stop Jefferson’s unjust relationship with Hemings from being normalized by historians who described it as “intimacy” and an “affair” in textbooks. Nor did it stop educators like my teacher from watering down Hemings’s reality as an enslaved (and therefore sexually oppressed) woman.
Even at 16 years old — the same age Hemings was when she made an agreement to return to enslavement in exchange for the freedom of her unborn children — I ruminated about what she would say of my teacher’s mischaracterization of her. Even before I learned that Hemings did not hold legal rights to refuse sex, I felt the absence of her perspective and the perspectives of all enslaved women forced to bear children during the class lesson.
“It’s a reminder that although textbooks … are evolving, it’s a slow process, and in the interim, misinformation about slavery persists,” The New York Times reports. It is also a reminder of how crucial interpersonal interactions are in shaping attitudes and awareness about who gets to own history and the stories that are told as a result.
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Years later, books on social justice and racism, as well as ones that feature protagonists of color or LGBTQ characters, continue to be banned from library shelves and school curricula. It has been nearly two years since PEN America first began tracking book bans in July 2021, and as consistent as these bans have remained, legal and political advocacy groups at the grassroots and national levels fiercely fight them head-on.
Larger organizations such as the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have celebrated banned books week and curated toolkits for educators. Smaller nonprofits such as We Need Diverse Books challenge the norms of the publishing industry by producing and promoting children’s books that reflect and celebrate people of marginalized identities. Red Wine & Blue, a grassroots network of suburban women, regularly hosts a “Troublemaker Training” to share how to start locally based initiatives against book bans.
While these bans are an extreme form of censorship, they are an extension of a broader effort to infuse white cishetero supremacy into all aspects of life. The pervasive whitewashing of history; misrepresentation and dehumanization of Black, Brown and LGBTQ people in news media; along with the promotion of Eurocentric perspectives in curricula, books, movies and television exemplify the long-standing practice of censorship and ideological dominance that predates the recent surge in book bans. They demonstrate how white cishetero supremacy permeates our daily lives in every state, irrespective of whether a ban is currently in effect, manifesting in more subtle and commonplace ways.
For this reason, our fight against censorship, white cishetero ideology and the suppression of marginalized voices must go beyond book bans, beyond the legal and political fronts, beyond the national level, and be infused in the close-knit, interpersonal interactions we have on a daily basis.
This practice can be traced back to intergenerational storytelling traditions practiced by Indigenous cultures around the world. In Discourses, Dialogue and Diversity in Biographical Research, scholar Adrienne S. Chan writes, “Indigenous peoples have valued storytelling for centuries, as a way of conveying history and knowledge through their families and communities.”
“Stories are powerful, and stories are survival, in particular, for communities and peoples who seek to rebuild and persevere,” writes Indigenous Canadian author Cherie Dimaline. “Indigenous storytelling communities are surviving the longest and most multifaceted genocide effort, in part, through the preservation and handing-down of stories…”
Outside of Indigenous traditions, community-centered approaches to preserving, teaching, and sharing histories and literature are already being practiced around the country. Throughout New York City, the local nonprofit New York Restoration Project has installed nearly 30 free little library boxes, where people can take a book or swap one title for another. When they were first installed, each box included books about social justice and racism.
Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship, a grassroots group in Louisiana, is raising funds for local libraries, writing letters to local officials in defense of books, and attending meetings hosted by the Board of Control of the Lafayette Library after it denied funding for a series of programs on the history of voting rights.
In Texas, students created banned book clubs independent from school oversight out of protest, where they read books that have been banned by their districts.
And Night School, a North Carolina-based collective of trained instructors, most with Ph.D.s and MFAs, offers online, pay-what-you-can evening seminars on the arts, humanities, race and gender studies, and class analysis.
But in this chaotic fight against historical and cultural erasure, we must remember that we, ourselves, have stories to tell. As the foreword of Mariame Kaba’s We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice notes, it is imperative that organizers follow in the footsteps of people such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett — Black women organizers who not only wrote themselves into the archives, but challenged mainstream histories: “Document your work and write yourself into the record.”
We each alone are primary sources, storing away textbooks worth of information on experiences about what it is like to live life in our bodies and what it is like to come up against the system in defense of them. The U.S. is built on false stories, stories that have been used to justify unjust life outcomes. Stories that do not stand a chance against a sea of more than 400 years of facts — a mass mobilization of knowledge — that brings all marginalized people, including the working class, closer to one another.
Those in power know our knowledge can topple their regime. So, they suppress it. But that doesn’t stop us from creating spaces where we amplify and celebrate the voices they have worked so hard to exclude and erase.
Will you tell your story? Will you document the movements you take part in, even as the right seeks to erase them? Will you share the stories of others?
Because like any regime or empire, this one too will come to an end. And not only will our stories survive the fall, they will serve as a fundamental tool to bring oppressive forces to the ground.
Julia Luz Betancourt
Julia Luz Betancourt is a Puerto Rican writer, journalist and mutual aid organizer based in New York.