An Alabama community is rallying behind award-winning author Derrick Barnes after Alabama schools canceled three appearances scheduled for Black History Month.
Barnes was set to appear at Bluff Park, Deer Valley, and Gwin Elementary Schools located within Hoover and Alabaster schools this month to read to the children and sign books.
The Hoover City school district told WKRG 5 News that the two sides failed to agree on a contract. Hoover Schools Superintendent Dee Fowler later told AL.com that an elementary school principal received a complaint from a parent about “controversial ideas” in Barnes’ social media post. However, officials said they had not seen the alleged posts and could not say what the author said on his platform.
The Alabaster school district has yet to make a comment on the situation.
“The Hoover City Schools District apologizes for the inconvenience caused to author Derrick
Barnes and his team,” a representative sent in a written statement. “The cancelation of Mr. Barnes’ visit to Bluff Park, Deer Valley, and Gwin Elementary Schools next month is due to the lack of a contract requested on three occasions. It is the district’s business practice to require contracts for services provided or goods exchanged.”
Barnes did not buy the explanation and even suggested a sit-down with the superintendent or anyone that doesn’t like the message his books portray. He is known for writing stories about Black children and their experiences growing up in America.
His 2017 book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” received national attention after earning a Newberry Honor, Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King award, and the Kirkus Prize.
“I really try to focus on writing books where Black children are doing ‘slice of life’ things,” said Barnes. “When I first got into the industry, all the books that were written by Black authors that got awards were always about civil rights or slavery. No bedtime stories. No stories about going to school.”
In 2021, the Alabama Board of Education voted to ban critical race theory teachings from K-12 classrooms and limit how educators can talk about race in the classroom.
Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed through a similar bill in Florida, and he wants to extend it to not only classrooms but corporations as well. Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas have all pushed for statewide rules to make it easier to remove certain public school textbooks with titles they dislike or deemed to have a critical race theory message in the book.
In Alabama, the ban states “concepts that impute fault, blame, a tendency to oppress others, or the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex.”
Some of the Black literature that has been outlawed in these states are: Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
“It’s important that white children, too, get a chance to see children that don’t look like them doing the same things they do: having a family, having people around them that love and care about them, and just doing everyday things,” said Barnes.
He also mentions that his literature could be used as a teaching tool for all races and that it is not aimed to make white children feel bad.
Ashley Dorough, a parent of a 7-year-old at one of the schools that canceled an appearance, started a fundraiser last Wednesday after she found out about the decision. She has helped raise $4,300 to cover one payment he was slated to receive from the school.
The rest of the money collected that is not sent to Barnes will be donated to an organization that aims to help prevent the “school-to-prison pipeline” by increasing child literacy within the Black community.
“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 told CNN.
Teachers from these schools and within the school district took a stance and gathered 140 signatures to sign a letter that was sent to the superintendent that stated their concerns and demanded 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.” said in the letter, drafted by 11th-grade teacher Reed Lochamy and seventh-grade teacher Kent Haines.
Kristen Berthiaume, who lives six miles away from Hoover, decided to take action and launched “Derrick Barnes Book Drive.” It prompted people to buy and donate books written by Barnes to kids in the surrounding areas. The books were also placed in free book library boxes in the local neighborhoods. So far, $1,200 of Barnes books have been purchased.
Berthiaume also runs a free library called Antiracist Little Library that focuses on books with characters of color as their central themes.
“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. “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.”
Barnes is overwhelmed by the support and thanked the Alabama community that stood behind him.
“All of us who don’t want this country to go backward, 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 need to speak out so our voices remain louder than the opposition,” stated Barnes.