Memphis School District Says ‘Miscommunication’ Is to Blame for Why George Floyd Biography Authors Couldn’t Talk About Systemic Racism

Officials from one school district in Memphis said they were “saddened and disappointed” to learn that the authors of a biography of George Floyd were told they couldn’t talk about racism during a speaking engagement at one of their schools.

According to NBC News, Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, the authors of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “His Name Is George Floyd,” said they were “blindsided” by last-minute restrictions they had to comply with at Whitehaven High School during an event for a reading program.

Authors of the biography “His Name is George Floyd” Robert Samuels (left) and Toluse Olorunnipa (right). (Photos: National Book Foundation)

Event organizers issued the warnings to both authors a few days before their scheduled appearance at the school, and a week before the event, organizers also told them that their book wouldn’t be distributed at the reading program.

“I was thinking about the great disservice that they’re giving these students who deserve better,” Samuels told NBC News. “I thought about my personal disappointment and feelings of naïveté that despite all the work Tolu and I had done to make sure the book would be written in a way that was accessible to them, a larger system decided that they were going to take it away.”

“It was really disappointing to hear that our speech was going to be limited,” Olorunnipa also remarked. “Not only for us, but for the students whose access to knowledge is going to shape their journey in this world and in this country.”

Both authors were relegated to discussion points about their personal experiences with racism rather than the overarching topic of systemic racism.

Organizers for Memphis Reads, the organization behind the reading program, said their instructions to the authors were based on guidance from the school district stemming from Tennessee law that requires that only “age-appropriate” books can be used as instructional materials for students, ChalkBeat reported.

That law also dictates that Tennessee’s teachers are prohibited from instructing students that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.”

A spokeswoman for Memphis-Shelby County Schools said a “miscommunication” was to blame for the ill-advised censure.

Cathryn Stout said school officials never placed any restrictions on what Samuels and Olorunnipa could say or read at the event. The main problem was book distribution. District and state regulations call for school officials to thoroughly review books before deciding to distribute them.

Stout said the district was “saddened and disappointed” when they discovered the authors “were given misinformation that was said to have come from us.”

“Memphis-Shelby County Schools did not send any messaging that said the authors could not read an excerpt from the book. Memphis-Shelby County Schools also did not send any messaging that said the authors could not discuss systematic racism or topics related to the death of George Floyd.”

The authors found an alternative means to distribute the books and gave them to students through a local nonprofit. The titles were donated by The Washington Post and Viking/Random Penguin House.

According to a book synopsis posted to Goodreads, “His Name Is George Floyd” reveals how systemic racism shaped George Floyd’s life and legacy. Floyd was murdered during an encounter with Minneapolis Police on May 25, 2020, outside a convenience store. Former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of his murder in 2021 and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.

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