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Author And Filmmaker M.K. Asante

Source: Boston Globe / Getty

I was thrilled to stumble upon Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, the young adult story about a Black teen girl whose life is changed when her best friend is killed by police. The 29-year-old’s debut novel invites young readers to think critically about the nationwide discussion surrounding police brutality while helping those who’ve been grappling with the subject to parse their feelings.

Since its early 2017 release, the New York Times #1 Bestseller has garnered a nomination as a National Book Award Longlist title. It’s also being made into a feature film starring Amandla Stenberg and Issa Rae. Arguably one of the most important pieces of YA fiction to be released all year, The Hate U Give is the sort of book that educators and parents alike should champion… at least one would think. But despite all of that, it’s still been banned by a school district in Texas.

I spent a good part of my Wednesday morning reading about a disgruntled parent from Katy, a small town just outside of Houston, who can be heard in a video from a November 6 district board meeting claiming that he was “very appalled” by the book’s explicit language and discussion of drug use. While the Katy school board president promised the district’s textbook review committee would evaluate the situation, Katy Independent School District superintendent Lance Hindt allegedly pulled the book from shelves district-wide before a thorough review could even take place.

Considering I just had the book in my hand at Barnes & Noble about two weeks ago after reading nothing but glowing reviews, I was moved to write about this story. A day later, I saw MK Asante—best-selling author and recording artist—tweet that his critically acclaimed memoir was also banned around the same time Thomas’ book was pulled from Texas school district shelves. What the hell was happening?

“Disgusted by @PrincipalMobley and the @BaltCitySchools decision to BAN my memoir BUCK,” he wrote. “A decision made w/o consulting teachers or students (who are more upset than me!). You admittedly have NOT even read the book that you banned! The kids of #Baltimore deserve so much better.”

I was deeply disappointed. A copy of BUCK was handed to me from stage during Asante’s set at Talib Kweli’s 2016 MLK event at New York City’s SOB’s. At the time, I had never heard of the memoir, but upon reading it later that summer, it easily became one of the best books I had read that year. For anyone unfamiliar, BUCK is a coming-of-age memoir that tells the story of how Asante changed his life through writing. Written during the trial of George Zimmerman, it’s also a voice for Black America as we navigate the present political climate.

“There is a Trayvon Martin situation happening almost every day in this country,” he told NPR in 2013. “I think what BUCK does is that it helps remind people that, even though there’s cases that we know about, there are so many cases that we don’t know about. That are happening all the time.”

Which is why the banning of BUCK, along with the banning of The Hate U Give, feels especially personal. By stripping students of access to literature that reflects a reality many of them live, administrators are essentially telling Black youth their stories don’t matter. CASSIUS reached out to Asante on Friday (December 8) to get his take on what’s currently happening in our nation’s schools, as well as the importance of pushing back.

This interview was edited for brevity.

CASSIUS: When did this ban initially happen and when did you find out about it?

MK ASANTE: I found out last week. I’ve been teaching BUCK in Baltimore City since 2013. I’ve been in over 25 high schools in Baltimore, doing workshops with students, all types of stuff. I’ve been in juvenile centers, all throughout the Baltimore City public school system, having some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had, like really transformative stuff. We’ve been doing this for years.

Last week, maybe two weeks ago, a parent on Facebook—a white parent—and I say that because out of all the events that I’ve done in Baltimore, [the kids are] 95 percent Black, 90 percent Black. So it’s interesting that this white parent posts three or four pages of BUCK on her Facebook group and says “Look at the crap my daughter has to read in school.” She posted pages from a strip club scene, so of course everyone’s like “Oh my God!”  In the comments people are like, “Oh, you should contact the news stations!” Then the news gets a hold of it . . . and Baltimore City got scared. They immediately ban the book, basically. The principals were told from the district to confiscate all the copies of BUCK.

The thing is, I’m in contact with teachers at the school where it was banned, at the other schools in Baltimore, and I don’t think the district and the administrators know that, so it’s really weird because they’ll lie to me and say things that just aren’t true, but I know what’s going on.

C.: Wow.

MA: I think what happened is they were scared of the negative local press that they were getting.

C.: Right.

MA: Again, it’s people who are really just like, “Oh s**t. Negative press. Let’s just ban it and then it will go away.” The thing is . . . it’s not gonna go away. I’m not gonna just let that s**t ride. This is why I said f**k school when I was 16. This is why I didn’t f**k with school. [Because of] people like that, people who are making those kinds of decisions. People who really don’t give a f**k about learning, education, kids, any of that. It’s real disheartening. So that’s what kind of happened up until yesterday.

C.: Jeez.

MA: Yesterday I called out the district and the principal, specifically, by name, and a lot of other people did too online, and [the district] issued another statement, a new statement, a different one than they issued last week. It’s like they’re backpedaling, and what they’re doing is they’re trying to dance with language. They’re trying to be on some semantics s**t where they’re like “Okay, it’s not a ban.” But all the teachers who I spoke with at Baltimore City called it a ban, all of the students [I’m in touch with in Baltimore] call it a ban. The city, the community, calls it a ban. The ALA calls it a ban.

The thing that strikes such a nerve with me—a personal nerve—is, when I was a young buck, it was these kind of books and these kind of authors [that] really changed the whole trajectory and direction of my life and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go and opened my mind. So much liberation came from reading [these kind of] authors, so for someone to try to limit that experience for another child, I take that s**t personal. It’s deeply upsetting.

C.: How have students and fans been responding? I saw you retweet a couple responses on your timeline. Have a lot of people reached out?

MA: Oh man, yeah. It’s overwhelming. Look, I’m just quiet laying low right now. I’m working on some projects and I totally wasn’t even gonna respond to this, but all of these teachers that I’ve worked with over the years are hitting me up and they actually can’t say the s**t that I’m saying. They cannot post and say [what they’re discussing with the school district]. They can’t do it, so they’re sending it to me. There’s so much that [they cannot do], so I feel like I have to be a voice right now.

C.: What are your plans from here? What is your next move in handling this situation?

MA: Students in Baltimore, they don’t have a lot of resources. I know classrooms that don’t have AC and classrooms that don’t have any books. It’s just like ‘why are you taking resources away?’ I think that’s really an assault on education, so I’m fighting for the ban to be lifted.

I think their logic was simple. They didn’t want negative PR, so I found that as I address them and make [what’s happening] more known [to the public] they are reaching out more and being more open. They basically, you know, they just don’t wanna look bad. People are calling for them to resign. People are calling me from all over the country. [BUCK] is the energy of other people. Its moved people, and when you attack it, they’re gonna respond. People have seen that book change peoples lives. Teachers have given that book to students [and its had] a big impact on them. It’s just like an assault on everybody.

Book Ends is CASSIUS’ hub for all things lit(erature). Check back each week for book-related content.