Wiley Cash’s monthly literary column highlights all things books in the Old North State.

UPDATE: The New Hanover County School Board voted 4-3 to temporarily remove the book from classrooms while keeping it in high school libraries. WHQR has more.

Attempts to suppress discussions of race and history have made their way back to Wilmington, North Carolina, a city still reeling from an 1898 race massacre, in which a group of white supremacists that included a faction known as the Red Shirts killed as many as 300 Black residents, set fire to an estimated 65 Black-owned businesses, and successfully overtook the city’s elected government. 

Despite the best efforts of the Capitol rioters on January 6, the events of 1898 still stand as the only successful coup in American history.

They also forever changed the social and economic landscape of the city, but news of the massacre was tidily repressed in local, state, and national media. If 1898 was discussed at all, it was falsely recast as a race riot fueled by an unruly Black community that heroic, armed White leaders quelled.

The most recent suppression attempts in Wilmington began on December 13, 2022 when Katie Gates filed a complaint against her child’s high school over the inclusion of the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You in an AP Language and Composition course. The book is a “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning created for readers ages 12 and up.

While the book reveals the genesis of racist ideology in America and suggests ways to combat it, Gates characterized it as “embracing dangerous ideologies.” In her complaint, Gates challenged the book through a number of inaccurate “facts,” contending that Thomas Jefferson freed his enslaved people and that the Bible was not used to justify slavery. 

School and district administrators twice overruled Gates—whose child had already completed an alternate assignment that did not require engagement with Stamped. She took her complaint to the New Hanover County School Board in late June. Now, the board’s seven members, many of whom ran on platforms of “parental rights,” are still deciding whether or not to remove the book from the curriculum. A public hearing is planned for the morning of Friday, September 1. 

But much of the board’s public wrestling with this decision appears to be theatrical. Gates and two conservative members of the school board seemingly laid the groundwork for the decision—to be made sometime this fall—months ago. Emails WHQR obtained reveal close coordination between Gates and school board member Josie Barnhart and Chair Pat Bradford. 

In an email dated December 15, Barnhart tells Gates “the question that comes to mind is what state-level objectives did this book cover,” and suggests that Gates begin her challenge by uncovering the decisions that led to Stamped’s inclusion in the curriculum. 

While Barnhart was offering Gates strategic advice, according to a December 19 email to Gates, board chair Pat Bradford had already made up her mind about Stamped. “This is horrifying,” she wrote.

But by Tuesday, July 11, when the school board met to continue discussions on Stamped, board members’ consideration had shifted from concern over the book’s content and historical accuracy to questions of whether or not it met AP standards. 

“The reading level of that book is actually middle school to high school,” said conservative board member Melissa Mason. “If this is an AP course, we want to raise the standard for our kids.” Barnhart agreed, contending that her copy of the book came from Castle Hayne Elementary’s library. (When I checked after the meeting, that library did not carry the book and it was not in their online catalog.) 

Also at the July meeting, Bradford said she’s open to addressing how teachers select books, although this process already exists, is clearly defined, and is open to public inquiry. 

I’m a parent of two young children who attend New Hanover County schools, and I’m deeply invested in ensuring that they learn the true complexity of American history. As a North Carolina native who was educated in the state’s public schools, I did not. 

People stand under the new North Carolina highway historical marker to the 1898 Wilmington Coup during a dedication ceremony in Wilmington, N.C., Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Matt Born/The Star-News via AP)

I didn’t learn of 1898 until I studied under a Black literature professor named Dr. SallyAnn Ferguson in graduate school at UNC-Greensboro. I had enrolled in a course on North Carolina literature, and when I purchased the required books I discovered they were all written by a Black author named Charles W. Chesnutt. I’d never heard of him.

Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and by the 1890s he was perhaps the best known Black fiction writer in the country. His stories regularly appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, where editor and literary lion William Dean Howells had embraced Chesnutt’s realist style and the wit with which he subtly subverted popular stereotypes of Black Americans. 

But that all changed in 1901, when Chesnutt published The Marrow of Tradition, a fictionalized account of the 1898 race massacre in Wilmington. Howells reviewed the novel and called it “bitter, bitter,” dismissing it with the accusation that Chesnutt had leaned into his emotion instead of his intellect when writing the novel. 

Perhaps Howells didn’t know that Chesnutt had family in Wilmington who’d suffered during and after the massacre, and perhaps he didn’t know that Chesnutt had spent many weeks in Wilmington, researching the facts of an event that was still fresh in the minds of the city’s Black residents. 

Marrow sold poorly, which was a great disappointment to Chesnutt, who believed it was his most realistic portrayal of the southern Black experience. He published sparsely afterward before falling into literary obscurity and dying in 1938. 

At the New Hanover County School Board meeting in July, Gates argued that history should be taught with “truth” as the guiding principle, not people’s “feelings.” If one were inclined to read into Gates’s comments, one could hear echoes of William Dean Howells’s condemnation of Chesnutt’s novel as being too “bitter” and emotional to be taken seriously as an important text. 

The possible outcomes of Friday’s public hearing range from Stamped remaining part of the curriculum to being banned from the school system. For now, the book is still part of the high school curriculum and is available in the school library where Gates’s child first encountered it. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition is not, but it is available at the New Hanover County Public Library. 

Will masked members of the Proud Boys, who regularly attend school board meetings here, be on hand to intimidate supporters of Stamped? It would only feel fitting—Wilmington’s contemporary Red Shirts playing their part. We often describe history as being circular or having a long arc that bends one way or another. But history is often nothing but a straight line between points, the tension between them pulling then and now ever closer.

Wiley Cash is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and the founder of This Is Working, an online creative community. He’s been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and he teaches fiction writing and literature at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, photographer Mallory Cash, and their daughters.

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