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Alabama community rallies in support of a Black author after school district cancels Black History Month event

<i>Courtesy Derrick Barnes</i><br/>Author Derrick Barnes
Courtesy Derrick Barnes
Author Derrick Barnes

By Alaa Elassar, CNN

A suburban Alabama community is rallying behind a Black author after the school district rescinded an invitation to have him speak and read his books at local elementary schools during Black History Month.

Award-winning children’s book author Derrick Barnes, known for writing stories for and featuring Black children, will no longer be visiting three Hoover City Schools, a school system just south of Birmingham, Alabama area this week. Dee Fowler, the district superintendent, cited contract issues and a parent’s “concern” regarding Barnes’ social media posts, he told CNN.

The cancellation incited outrage from frustrated parents, teachers, and Hoover residents, some of whom channeled anger into activism. Hundreds have come together to raise a portion of the $9,900 Barnes would have been paid for the events.

Some are also working to stock his books in Free Little Libraries, public bookcases where anyone can take or leave a book, throughout the city.

Ashley Dorough, a parent of a 7-year-old student at one of the schools where the event was canceled, launched a fundraiser Wednesday, a week after the announcement. So far, $4,300 has been donated, covering Barnes’ promised payment at one of the schools.

The rest of the money will be donated to an organization aimed at stopping the “school-to-prison pipeline” by increasing literacy rates in children of color.

“We are a transracial family, so when we found out Derrick Barnes was coming, we immediately cleared our schedule, asked the librarian if family can come, it was a very exciting, well-known event. It’s a rare opportunity for your child to get in a public school, so losing that was disappointing, hurtful, and frustrating,” Dorough, whose son is Black, told CNN.

Dorough said she and others decided to take action.

“At the beginning, there was so much anger, and we were all asking, ‘Why, why, why?'” she said. “I realized we can no longer be angry or just move on with our lives We had to take that energy and put it into something good.”

The district’s move to cancel Barnes’ visits triggered concerns of censorship amid controversial book bans in some parts of the country, specifically targeting titles related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Republican-led states, including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, have pushed statewide rules making it easier for critics to remove titles they dislike from school libraries.

In Alabama, the state’s board of education adopted a resolution in 2021 titled “Declaring the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom and Non-Discrimination in Alabama’s Public Schools,” which, according to the Legal Defense Fund, “prevents educators from teaching the full and accurate history of racial discrimination and civil rights in Alabama and the United States.”

However, Fowler, the school district superintendent, told CNN the issue is not about the content of Barnes’ books, which Fowler said are found in libraries and classrooms across the district, but posts he had made on social media.

Fowler said the events were canceled after “a parent at one of the elementary schools voiced concern regarding social media posts made by Mr. Barnes.” He did not clarify what the posts included or what made them controversial.

“I wasn’t told anything about a parental complaint. My socials are all about my books, events, children, and of course I talk about Black history facts and things happening in the world, but everything is factual,” Barnes said.

A CNN review of the author’s social media posts found they predominantly feature photos of his family, writing, and music he enjoys, as well as comments about news events and political issues including police brutality, the January 6 insurrection and the presidential election.

“That concern was relayed to our central office. Central office staff looked for the contract with Mr. Barnes to ascertain the nature and scope of his presentation, only to discover that no contract was on file,” Fowler added. “Because of the difficulties encountered in attempting to reach a timely contractual arrangement with Mr. Barnes, we felt it appropriate to seek out other African American authors to speak at the schools.”

Fowler said the schools asked Barnes’ agent, Patrick Oliver, for a contract three times, something Oliver told CNN was false.

“The contract statement is an excuse the Hoover School District wants to hide behind for their horrible and unpopular decision,” Oliver said, adding he made sure all necessary paperwork were completed. “Several emails confirmed Derrick’s appearance. I requested a $500 advance for Derrick’s travel and the check was received within seven days, a sign that an agreement was in place for Derrick’s appearance.”

The district informed Barnes’ in an email, which was obtained by CNN, they would no longer host him as a guest author at the three schools due to “a recent change.”

Parents were also sent a letter citing contractual issues as the reason for the cancellations and said the district would be paying Barnes a portion of his engagement fee.

Barnes also had plans to make an appearance at the city’s public library this week but canceled because of his family’s concerns for his safety.

“You see in their eyes how much it means to them”

When Barnes was a child, he never saw himself depicted in literature as anything but a stereotype; the runaway slave, the basketball player, the poor child living in the projects.

Now a 47-year-old father of four boys, Barnes has dedicated his life to making sure every Black child can pick up a book and finally see their story filling its pages.

“If you’re a Black artist in America, by default you’re an activist. I have an obligation to make sure if they can’t find images that portray them as human beings, I will make sure to do it myself,” Barnes told CNN.

“I write my books so when Black children pick them up they don’t want to put it down because they see themselves. It’s a mirror. They see it and think ‘This is who I am, I’m someone with astronomical goals. I love myself. I love my skin. I love my hair. I love my family. I love my neighborhood.'”

Some of Barnes’ most celebrated books, which focus on the beauty and joy of Black childhood, include “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” which chronicles the experience of going to the barber, and “I Am Every Good Thing,” which encourages Black children to be proud of everything that makes them who they are.

Some of his other books touch on topics like protesting racial injustice, a Black girl’s first day of kindergarten, and a series centered around the 8-year-old “ultra-fabulous Ruby Marigold Booker.”

Barnes’ felt “deeply offended and hurt by the cancellations,” but more than anything, he says, he felt sadness for the children who missed out on an experience which could have had an enormous impact on their lives and futures.

“You see in their eyes how much it means to them. When they meet me, a Black man, an author, and see I’m not an entertainer, an athlete, or a rapper. They see what else they can be besides the stereotypes that are starting to seep into their psyche,” he said.

“It makes my heart feel good seeing kids excited when I visit them because they know I’m doing this work for them. They may not say it in so many words, but they know when I create books like that, I’m speaking directly to them. I care about them and I want them to be presented in this world as full, thought out human beings.”

But his work isn’t only for Black children, he says.

“It’s even more important for White children to see Black, Brown, Asian, Muslim characters. If they don’t see those kids in their immediate environments, these books serve to counter stereotypes they’re taught,” Barnes said. “They get to learn about different cultures while also seeing the similarities, how we live, how we dream, the things we all fear, the things that bring us joy. But they won’t realize this if they only see themselves.”

Prioritizing diversity in literature is a critical step to ensuring a community builds unity, according to Devon Frazier, whose organization I See Me will receive a portion of the money donated.

“We develop ideas about ourselves and the world at an early age through literature. When children are presented with books that provide both ‘mirrors’ and ‘windows,’ it allows them to build empathy and have a deeper understanding for one another,” she said. “Subsequently, we can begin to drive out hate and misjudgments, replacing it with love and understanding.”

Parents, teachers demand answers

Six miles away from Hoover, Kristen Berthiaume decided she wouldn’t stay silent either.

While none of her children attend the schools impacted by the cancellations, Berthiaume launched a “Derrick Barnes Book Drive,” which prompted dozens of people to purchase and donate books written by Barnes, to distribute to as many children in Hoover as possible.

So far more than $1,200 was raised to buy Barnes’ books, and many others have mailed his books directly to Berthiaume, so she can fill up 25 public community bookcases, funded by the nonprofit group Little Free Library, around the city with his stories, Berthiaume said.

“The idea was to make sure that kids who missed the opportunity to see his work and hear him speak can have them for free,” said Berthiaume, who runs the “Antiracist Little Library,” a free library with central characters of color. “We just wanted these books to be made widely accessible since the school system didn’t. I feel most disappointed for kids, especially those who have never met a Black male author before. It’s really a huge loss we’re talking about.”

Teachers within the school district also took a stance, with 140 educators across Hoover elementary and high schools signing a letter to district leaders stating their concern and demanding “forthrightness and transparency” on why the visits were canceled.

“In the absence of a clear and compelling explanation as to why such a decision was made, a reasonable person could infer from the information currently available that the decision was made for reasons other than those in the best interests of our students, possibly even in response to a single parent complaint.” the letter, drafted by 11th grade teacher Reed Lochamy and 7th grade teacher Kent Haines, reads.

Barnes says he feels overwhelming gratitude for the community’s response: “I can’t say thank you enough,” he said, adding he hopes the story will inspire people to pay attention to the censorship and banning of books in other states.

“All of us who don’t want this country to go backwards, banning books in a country all about diversity, every parent, celebrity, and person who is an advocate of literacy and truth and real American history needs to speak out so our voices remain louder than the opposition.”

Some residents in Hoover agreed.

“We’re not moving on from this, we’ve been let down,” Dorough said. “But there’s more to the story besides the injustice, and that’s our response. We will help support this author and an organization that wants to get diverse books into libraries that have no diversity, and now that is the point of our story.”

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