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On February 1, the first day of Black History month, the news hit that fascist Governor DeSantis disapproved of the curriculum for the AP African American History course and would ban it from being taught in Florida. Not long after this story aired, it was revealed that Florida officials and AP officials had been negotiating the content of this course for some time and it looks like the AP/College Board basically caved to reactionary political demands and agreed to censor the course. Anyone familiar with the history of the College Board/AP should not be surprised by this; the College Board and standardized testing have pretty solid roots in racism to begin with, and they exist to make money first and foremost. AP courses being taught/money being made is more important than ensuring that their courses contain important factual information and meaningful content. As I was scrolling through my Twitter feed on Feb. 1, I saw this exchange between Sherrilyn Ifill (former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and an author named Michelle Coles:
Again, no surprises here that a YA book on Reconstruction would be banned when we know that children’s biographies of baseball greats Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente have also been pulled from library shelves — I guess because they mention that these men faced harassment and discrimination due to the color of their skin. I made a point of buying Ms. Coles’ book and let me tell you, it is outstanding. I learned more about Reconstruction from this novel than I did in any US history course I ever took. Black Was the Ink reminded me a bit of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, employing a contemporary character who gets transported into the past. In Black Was the Ink, teenaged Malcolm finds himself traveling back and forth in time in order to learn the history he was never taught as well as to find the strength and means for pushing forward in the fight for equality.
Malcolm is 15 and living in Washington DC with his mother. Malcolm’s father was killed by police, and Malcolm found himself unjustly accused of involvement in a crime. His mother decides it would be safer for him to spend his summer in Mississippi on the farm that his father’s family has owned for generations. Malcolm resents being sent to this remote, dull place, and more importantly he is demoralized by the way he, his father and other Black people are treated; the posters of great Black Americans on his bedroom walls just upset him and seem to highlight the pointlessness of a struggle that has gotten Black people nowhere. While living with his great aunt and uncle, however, Malcolm makes several shocking discoveries. One is that he has an Uncle Corey, his father’s younger brother, who spent over half his life in prison for a minor crime. The other is that in the family home’s attic, there is a desk with a diary written by his ancestor Cedric Johnson in the 1870s and 1880s. Cedric appears to Malcolm throughout the summer, transporting him back in time to see what happened to the Johnson family and to Black Americans in the period immediately following the Civil War. Malcolm’s eyes are opened to greatness, tragedy, suffering and incredible valor. When he makes these trips to the past, for days or even weeks at a time, he lives in the past as Cedric and experiences Cedric’s work with Black members of Congress. The history in this novel is on point, including real historical people and events. It is fascinating.
Meanwhile, as Malcolm travels back in time, he will discover that time in his time period essentially stands still and waits for him to return. And in his “real time,” Malcolm begins to appreciate the community and family he has in the South. He makes friends with the girl next door, whose father is a professor at Alcorn State University; he gets to know his Uncle Corey; and he learns that eminent domain is a threat to the family farm, as the state wants to take what is left of the Johnson family property and bulldoze it for the highway. Cedric lets Malcolm know that it is his, Malcolm’s, job to find a way to save the family farm.
Malcolm’s journey is compelling to read. He is angry and confused at first and his feeling of hopelessness is understandable. As he learns more about the past and about his family, he is stunned at how much history has been hidden and at how incredibly important that lost history is; the parallels between Reconstruction and our present age are shocking. Malcolm develops an appreciation for all that his family and ancestors did, for their work and sacrifice, and becomes determined to keep up the fight, using his own talents and strengths to work toward equality and justice for all. This is just a superb story, and it is a damn shame that there are people out there who fear its being known. We all need more stories like Black Was the Ink, and we need our history courses to be more reflective of the Black experience, especially when it makes us uncomfortable. We ought to be uncomfortable with what happened in our history and we ought to learn from it.