Even as the book banning and censorship conversations moved to the forefront of publishing, even as I expected my own books to eventually be part of the conversation, and even as I saw two of them added to lists of books deemed inappropriate by legislators and parents, I was not prepared for the range of emotions I would experience when I was asked not to discuss my most recent book at an upcoming school visit. Disappointment, of course. Anger, yes. But also shame and embarrassment—though I knew I had done nothing wrong by writing about the truth in Black Birds in the Sky: The Story and Legacy of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
I was looking forward to speaking with students in Texas at the end of February 2022 as part of their school district’s African American Read-In event. This national initiative was established by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English, and per that organization, more than 6 million people have participated in this Black History Month event since its founding in 1990, more than 30 years ago.
So why, then, was I asked not to discuss my Black history book during a month that celebrates Black history at an event specifically celebrating Black authors and stories? It was, apparently, “too controversial” for high school students. When my publishing reps pushed back on the request for me to not talk about the book, they were informed my actual presentation would not be censored, but that the school district would not be purchasing copies of Black Birds in the Sky for the students; they would, instead, buy copies of a backlist title they felt was more appropriate.
One of the reasons I wrote Black Birds in the Sky was out of sheer frustration that so many historical moments and events in Black American history have been sanitized at best and intentionally buried at worst. Public officials in Oklahoma tried for decades to conceal the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921; many local residents followed suit, which is why I have heard from so many readers who grew up in the area that they hadn’t known about the history of their own hometown until just recently. And that they are appreciative of my work to keep this story alive and refusal to sugarcoat the fact that United States history is rife with lynchings of Black Americans, destruction of Black wealth, and the instigation of race massacres in which white mobs murdered hundreds of Black people in cities and towns all over the country.
What, exactly, is controversial about a factually accurate book that details Black American history, which is also American history? What does it message to students when we keep them from learning about an event that shaped the demographics of a city only a few hours to the north of them? What does it say to authors when we are prevented from sharing our research and knowledge with young people who will soon be adults, some of them someday making decisions that affect society at large?
I learned early on that history books were not written for me or people who looked like me. The lives of Black Americans in textbooks and history lessons have long been whittled down to only The Struggle, failing to humanize our ancestors and highlight our strengths and achievements. I have been so heartened to see books focusing on the detailed, in-depth history of Black Americans in the young adult and middle grade spaces in recent years. And I was honored to add Black Birds in the Sky to that growing list—a book that shows how people who were subjugated by oppressive Jim Crow laws and violent racism made a way out of no way and built up the thriving Greenwood District in North Tulsa.
Though it hurt to miss out on a chance to speak to high school students, I decided to remove myself from the event in Texas. Refusing to share a specific work of mine with their students was a form of book censorship. And there is nothing controversial about the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Perhaps the story itself makes some people uncomfortable, and I would advise them to sit with that discomfort. To think about the communities and cultures who’ve had to endure biased, inaccurate history about their ancestors for centuries. To understand that Black Americans have had to perform our own research and self-educate to ensure we keep the true stories of the past alive for future generations.
History does not belong to any one group. Everyone deserves to know how the past is shaping the present, how it will impact the future. And if young people are deprived from learning about the painful parts of history, they are robbed of a proper education and tools that will help them focus on making the world a more inclusive, honest place.
Brandy Colbert is the critically acclaimed author of the young adult novels Pointe, The Voting Booth, Finding Yvonne, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph, and Stonewall Award winner Little & Lion, as well as the middle grade novel The Only Black Girls in Town. A trained journalist, she also worked with boundary-breaking ballet dancer Misty Copeland to adapt her memoir into the best-selling book Life In Motion: Young Readers Edition, and also co-adapted the young readers edition of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Born and raised in Springfield, Missouri, Brandy now lives and writes in Los Angeles, and is on the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults. You can find her online at www.brandycolbert.com.
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