Letter to the Editor: Former Burbank High Student Reflects Back on BUSD’s ‘Book Ban’

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Letter to the Editor:

The last two years of my high school experience revolved around diversity, equity, and inclusivity work. I ran the Black Student Union at Burbank High School and attempted numerous times to voice concerns about Burbank Unified School District’s (BUSD) “temporary ban” on books that contained the n-word. As a result, I now have the opportunity to work with PEN America, a “non-profit organization that seeks to defend and celebrate free expression globally”, on book ban advocacy. I have since graduated from Burbank High and am pursuing a degree in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of San Francisco. Yet, I remain voicing my concerns about BUSD’s almost three-year ban on Black literature. I have seen the real implications of policing Blackness in schools. I have come face to face with the reality that remains when these voices are silenced. Blackness in all forms becomes too taboo for anyone to associate with in a classroom.   

In a letter Burbank Unified Superintendent Matt Hill released in 2020 to address the first set of book bans for the school district, he stated, “I want to stress that the Board and I fully support addressing racism, even though it is uncomfortable work.” I ache knowing that it does not matter how intensely I immerse myself in the knowledge of my oppression, yet, so long as I exist, I will never have the privilege to deem racism as discomfort because to claim that prejudice is uncomfortable would be to suspend my every waking moment to pain. I am tired of giving white people the benefit of the doubt when regulating Black presence. I am tired of grappling with the trivialities white people ask me to debate them on. I don’t care if you deem yourself racist or not; this is not your story to tell, and it is not your life to live. It is not your history nor your ancestors, and we do not need your approval to advocate for space in our classrooms. 

To depoliticize the current conversation around book banning, many educators rely on the barring of the First Amendment, but in truth, this issue is beyond freedom of speech. The book censorship climate in America today centers around power and exclusion. As author Koa Beck states in her book, White Feminism, “Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than the whiteness of organizations.” Book banning today is a direct reaction from white educational institutions losing grip of their power to define diversity under exclusionary structures. 

A journalist told me that my story in dealing with the BUSD book ban might not hold enough relevancy to be in the media because it began two years ago, in the wake of BLM and the murder of George Floyd. Privilege allows those that have it the opportunity to walk away from another’s suffering. I have spoken to enough media professionals to gauge the appeal in my perspective. To be deemed suitable, I must clarify that racism is still relevant. To fit within this mold — a mold that by nature operates under systems that don’t allow me to speak in the first place — I’ve observed that “Blackness” as a whole within the US education system is an object. It does not matter if the educational institution promotes or obstructs Black presence. “Blackness” becomes a prop of political relations, virtue signaling, or some other entity upholding white supremacist values. 

White liberalism still relies on exclusionary ideas and systems that suppress Black, Brown, and Queer success. As bell hooks states in her essay “The Racial Politics of Mass Media”, “Placed in positions of authority in educational structures and on the job, white people could oversee and eradicate organized resistance. The new neo-colonial environment [in the 20th century] gave white folks even greater control over the African-American mind.” Educational systems were built to perpetuate white power and control. In Burbank, which was and arguably still is a sundown town, there is a desperate need for exclusion, classism, and racism to still define what is and isn’t acceptable. The question of censoring Mildred D. Taylor but never Anthony Burgess relies on affirming narratives rooted in traditional hegemony. There will always be people that hold power in academia that feel book censorship is necessary because exposing those perspectives, which would otherwise be silenced, would ignite in students a critical eye to the same systems sustaining their salaries. 

When PEN America first reached out to me, they communicated that my school district’s book ban was a different situation  compared to the bans happening across the country. Burbank tackled a liberal stance on censorship. While I agree that my town and school district had no intention of being overtly racist in silencing Black literature, there is no difference in policing Black being, history, and voices from a liberal white superintendent than a conservative one. My school district made but a few haphazard attempts to connect with Black students in my two years with the board on DEI work, and no attempts to unite Black students and build Black community. 

I often sense that my presence isn’t meant to be felt — like I am being sandwiched between two concrete masses. That I should be electrical wires between the walls of a tall and dark building, yet I can feel my veins pulse and my neck choke under the weight pulling me deeper inside my own hell. That is the best visual representation I can give to the systems that oppress us. The most sinister aspect of patriarchal white supremacy is that it festers from within you, only for the outside world to substantiate those same exclusionary systems and bring us closer to becoming unidentifiable within the masses of our suffering. Not only do these systems make us sit down, but they do it in a way where it feels like it was our choice to take a seat. 

This country sits on a symbolic foundation of bigotry and exclusion while sitting literally on stolen land and murdered peoples. Regardless of the future for book censorship in America, there will be students that differ from traditional paths of education — students that must diverge from these paths because they were never built with space for them. This country may always police our being. However, they do not know what power we hold in the shadows of their structures. 

“For colored people to acquire learning in this country makes tyrants quake and and tremble on their sandy foundation.” – David Walker, US abolitionist.

Madison Clevenger
University of San Francisco


2 COMMENTS

  1. Madison, If you remember when I made copy’s of your letter and passed them out to the school board – I had the pleasure of hearing you read that exact letter yourself to the board at great speed.(I recognized your intelligence immediately) I thought the board was disrespectful to you by not allowing you more time.
    I also encouraged you to run for office and told you that would have my vote. After reading the above letter, I can see Burbank is too small a town for you.
    Best wishes for your bright future.

  2. Well said Madison. To add insult to injury, Matt Hill has the gall to claim that it wasn’t even a “book ban” since the books that were banned from the curriculum could be found in the library. This Orwellian attempt at obfuscation shows just how quick to capitulate and unwilling to own up to their own role in the problem of bigotry, our public servants are. Love where you wrote:”This country sits on a symbolic foundation of bigotry and exclusion while sitting literally on stolen land and murdered peoples”. Unfortunately some would rather we were never taught this history than to actually do anything to ensure it never happens again.

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