Author Ta-Nehisi Coates sat silently through a school board meeting in South Carolina to support a high school teacher told to stop using his book on growing up Black in America in her advanced English class.
Mary Wood has taught the lesson before, but after a few of her Chapin High School students wrote a school board member in February that the unit made them feel “uncomfortable” and “ashamed to be Caucasian” the books were taken up and the assignment ended.
Coates wrote his 2015 book “Between the World and Me” as a letter to his teenage son on his perceptions of the feelings and circumstances of being Black in America and how racism and violence based on skin color are part of American society.
Wood asked her Advanced Placement English students to read the book and watch two videos on systemic racism she used to introduce it, then identify the themes of the works and discuss their thoughts, including whether they disagree with Coates’ view,
Records from the Lexington-Richland 5 school district indicate officials were worried the assignment could run afoul of a rule in the South Carolina budget banning schools from using state money to teach that anyone is consciously or unconsciously racist simply by their race and preventing lessons from making anyone feel discomfort, guilt or anguish based on their race.
Republicans have used the well-publicized provision to threaten other school districts in the state and one student who complained about the lesson wrote they were “pretty sure a teacher talking about systemic racism is illegal in South Carolina.”
Coates sat next to Wood during Monday’s Lexington-Richland 5 school district meeting in Irmo in suburban Columbia. Neither spoke publicly, according to media reports.
The student complaints on Wood’s lesson were sent directly to a school board member instead of to the teacher, Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent Akil Ross said.
“Nine times out of ten that’s where the issue is resolved,” Ross said at the Monday school board meeting.
Teaching English is about telling stories and students need to be exposed to stories that both relate to themselves and are unfamiliar, said Tess Pratt, the chairwoman of Chapin High School’s English department.
“On the day that I took Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books out of the hands of Ms. Wood’s students, I silenced his story,” Pratt said. “Even though this was a decision that was not mine, I will regret that moment in front of those students for the rest of my life, because it was wrong.”
Monday’s board meeting was packed with teachers and others supporting Wood. It was very different from the last board meeting in June, where the speakers were against Wood with a few asking why she hadn’t been fired.
Republican state Rep. RJ May said lessons need to represent a color-blind society that doesn’t discriminate against white people because of racism in the past.
Another speaker who didn’t fully identify herself said Wood deserved to be fired or reprimanded because she “showed no remorse and strongly defended herself after she broke the law.”
The school board has taken no action on Wood and hasn’t changed policies based on the event.