Resources for “The Speaker” program
The ALA Library has very helpfully put together a pathfinder of resources relevant to the ongoing discussion around “Speaking About ‘The Speaker,'” the upcoming IFC/AAP program at ALA Annual Conference.
Included in the pathfinder: the link to the film and the accompanying discussion guide, a film chronology, a bibliography of articles about the film and the controversy surrounding it, uploads of several historical American Libraries magazine articles (reprinted with permission of AL magazine), and links to recent articles about the upcoming program.
A key document is the full 1978 statement from 25 ALA members, endorsed by the Black Caucus of the ALA, presented at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in opposition to the film and ALA’s sponsorship of it.
This pathfinder is a work in progress: if you have other articles or links you would like included in the finders guide, please contact Valerie Hawkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am deeply disappointed that the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the Library History Round Table, and the Black Caucus are sponsoring a program on The Speaker without a single person identified with the distress it caused historically, and continues to cause today. The deck seems to be stacked, and our request to add one of the most respected library journalists of our time — John Berry, who has reported extensively on the issues raised by the Speaker — has gone unanswered.
Why is there not even one person on the panel who thinks that The Speaker was a mistake or worse–is this intellectual freedom? All points of view? A true version of history? Why is the issue continually framed as purely an intellectual freedom one then or now, when the issues were — and are — so much more complex.
The role of the OIF, and for that matter the American Library Association, is to ensure that all points of view are presented. As it stands now, the panel selected has no such representation. That is shameful.
It is not too late to add a panelist, so that the conference attendees hear another side of the story and thus be given a more complete picture. The suggestion that anyone can raise a question or comment from the floor is a poor substitute for a speaker being given time, legitimacy, and space on the platform.
Maurice J. (Mitch) Freedman, MLS, PhD
Past President, American Library Association
Director, New City (NY) Library
Publisher, ”‹The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian,
the ‘how I run my library good’ letter
Betty Turock, past ALA President, is unable to make it to The Speaker program on Monday of conference. She has asked me to post the following comments she had hoped she could make at the program.
Since I must leave the ALA Annual Conference before the program on the 1977 film, “The Speaker,” takes place, I want my words and not another’s interpretation of them to make clear the reasons why earlier I declared this a “badly flawed racist film.” Let me take up the descriptions as badly flawed and racist separately. In so doing I use the nomenclature of the time, referring to the African Americans portrayed in the film as black, quoting liberally from the film to substantiate my views, and giving only the most important reasons for my characterization.
For me the conflict in the film was never about whether the scientist, Professor James Boyd, should have spoken. I am a librarian and a past President of ALA. One of the fundamental principles of our profession is support for the First Amendment. Of course he should have spoken. It is the execution of the occasion on which he was to speak that I find flawed. This was a teachable moment lost in controversy, leaving the impression that support of the First Amendment leads to “trouble, confrontation, and disruption” in the community at large. It would have been far better to show this as a time to bring the community together and to elucidate the context that might have led to that togetherness.
Instead, the film depicts a lecture to students on the Lincoln Douglas Debates as the sole preparation for the speaker’s appearance. Clearly the teacher and Current Events Committee advisor, Victoria Dunn, had such an invitation in mind with her lecture, but her description of her role and that of the students in this controversy leads to the conclusion that the students were the primary sources of both the idea and its execution. While she maintains that she does not use her influence with the student Committee her behavior repeatedly demonstrates that she is manipulating them to make the decisions she favors.
This rhetoric is a disservice to all of the groups who ultimately became part of the conflict and to the countless teachers who know that this situation termed “too hot to handle” by many in authority demands an inclusive strategy to avoid the divisiveness ultimately instilled not only within the school among faculty and students, but also within members of the Board of Education, the PTA, parents of the students, and residents-at-large. Such planning would have included prior preparation of as many groups as possible in an understanding of the meaning and importance of the First Amendment in our democracy. Then the PTA meeting could be depicted as a discussion of their role in Professor Boyd’s presentation, instead of as one of the seats of acrimony. If the community were prepared for Boyd’s speech, it would provide the quintessential moment in which to bring it together, not break it into factions.
My second reason for considering the film flawed is the selection of the advocate for the First Amendment. Ms. Dunn’s stilted elocution made her separate from the community, not part of it. Throughout she is portrayed as the font of knowledge giving an unchanging lecture to listen to the side consistently supported as “right.” She is the expert not only on the First Amendment, but also the righteous arbiter of the situation as it evolves. How much better if she were seen as the teacher who provided the students with the opportunity to learn about their adult role in bringing disparate voices together for the good of the community. How much better if she had given serious thought to recruiting others who represented all segments and colors in the community to use their voices as leaders with hers and the students in spearheading the event. This would also have allowed her to retire with her legacy as a revered teacher of 30 years intact.
Now let me move to the reason I previously defined the film as replete with subtle and not so subtle racism. I begin with the subtle. Early on when Ms Dunn was asked, “Is Professor Boyd a racist?” Her response was, “I don’t know. I have never heard him speak,” making his speeches the crucial denominator of decisions on his viewpoints. Why didn’t she encourage the students to carefully cull through his written and spoken works in other venues, comparing them with the best thinking of the time and coming up with a reasoned decision based on the facts before them that would give credence to their judgment of where Boyd stood on racial issues?
In the realm of not so subtle racism, the film depicts two black male students as the most volatile antagonists in this conflict. Both exhibit aggressive behavior as well as anger– one repeatedly in the use of his voice and the second in tearing up a poster announcing the event. Some whites also disagreed with Boyd’s appearance, but they were never shown with more than words advancing their disapproval. What makes the portrayal of the two black youths more obviously racist is that both are shown with dark skin. The skin tone of black men and women is pointed out in both scholarly and popular depictions for its racist connotation. That it appears here indicates to me that “The Speaker” is largely made by white filmmakers who are not in contact with the nuances of the black audience it portrays.
In the current debate in which “The Speaker” is presented as a time when the inability to discuss racism was far more prevalent than now. I would urge all those with such views to speak with Emerging Majority library educators seeking tenure; or attempting to establish a research record in social justice; or librarians working in communities with large Emerging Majority populations whose staff is heavily populated by colleagues without knowledge of the history or social competencies needed to give the communities they are chartered to serve the first rate service they deserve. I think that if they do they will find themselves agreeing with me when I say that there is not much evidence substantiating the difference in the ability to discuss racism between 1977 and now.
–Betty Turock 6/25/2014