The final project for one of my classes was to do a book review on The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise S. Robbins, which I believe was originally published in the Library Quarterly in January of 2001. We had the option of doing it as a regular essay or submitting a video. Naturally I chose the former format because it is obviously less work to agonize over crafting a single document instead of drafting a script, then editing a script, filming multiple takes, and then editing the takes into a video. Apparently a couple students disagreed because they did submit a video format which the rest of us were allowed to watch. I got about 30 seconds into each video before “nope”ing out because they were basically just reading off a PowerPoint and checking off boxes of a “how to write a book review”. My biggest gripe (other than it was boring) was the tone of the videos was all wrong. This might just be my journalism elective talking, but what they should have lead with (if they discussed it at all and I’ll never know) is this book is old enough to buy alcohol, why are we still talking about it???
Earlier this month a town in Michigan voted to defund their library because it refused to censor LGBTQ+ voices. That fucking terrifies me.
Rolling it back to Dismissal, after describing a brief history of the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma which included a segue on patriarchy (which I have to skip over because of time) Robbins finally gets to what I clocked as the point (which tragically didn’t make it into the film adaptation). Two very poignant details that Robbins mentions is that the “Five Civilized Tribes” were deemed as such because they owned slaves and Bartlesville had a fucking Klu Klux Klan office in its civic center. Robbins doesn’t mention if the Klan office was contemporary with the Public Library that was also built in the Civic Center.
The Black patrons of the library when asked about what they remember about Miss Brown basically said she was like any other librarian of the day. Robbins lays out ample evidence that Miss Brown was well read and a good librarian. As a good Librarian, when the American Library Association began leaning towards desegregation so did she. It was the desegregation that made her a target of the town’s moral guardians. Thinking about the library in Michigan all I can say is, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I almost wish I had waited to take the class because there is just so much happening right now that would have tied in seamlessly with my essay. The three main points I chose to focus on (because there was a page limit) was 1) that the “American Ideal” that moral guardians were trying to uphold was, not just racist, but specifically anti-Black, 2) The moral guardians of today were employing very similar tactics (because they work) that the Bartlesville moral guardians used to fire Ruth Brown, and 3) Afterwards people hyper focused on the censorship aspect of the incident and ignored that it was driven by anti-Black ideology. Something I didn’t understand at first about the whole thing was why the moral guardians chose to use anti-communist/anti-socialism rhetoric to target Miss Brown instead of just outright saying it’s because they were trying to prevent desegregation. But then I found an article citing a Tweet (welcome to the new century I guess) by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (Texas) saying, “I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed. That’s why we created the Liberty Institute at UT.”
Allegedly coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, which hey, we know her! CRT is literally decades old and totally niche college level subject (like gender studies or queer studies) that you probably had to pay lots of money to even hear about before 2020. In 2020 it suddenly became a buzzword for, as Governor Greg Abbott (Texas again, I’m sorry) claimed was trying to “rewrite history and redesign the future” and was also “undermining the very values and core of what America stands for” which I argued based on the evidence collected and laid out by Robbins is straight up anti-Black. I can’t be the only one seeing this. This is not boring, this is terrifying.
The New York Times just put out a really good article on CRT that also happened to spark a discussion with my mom. My parents just finished up a cross country road trip and while the history stuff is sooo not my mom’s thing, after she saw the reviews for President Jefferson’s house she was like, “Oh, I have to see it now.”
Every new article that comes out leaves me feeling like my class essay was incomplete. I do have full confidence that I was at least on the right track of zeroing in on the feeling of “OMFG”and highlighting that both the film inspired by Miss Brown’s story and the ALA’s initial response to the dismissal missed the mark by focusing on censorship. Censorship isn’t the issue, censorship is just a tool that moral guardians use to shutdown actions that are “undermining the very values and core of what America stands for” which we know from Dismissal is anti-Black and, as we are are very quickly (re)learning through current events, is anti-LGBTQ+. As a final sticking point I made sure to mention in my essay that if the Texas executive branch successfully bans CRT, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library would in all likelihood be censored. That’s why the book matters and why it sometimes keeps me up at night.