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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

'Stamped' out? The battle to remove an AP-English book from a New Hanover County school

Benjamin Schachtman
'Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You' — The advanced-placement English class assignment being challenged at Ashley High School in New Hanover County.

Over the last year, parents, far-right groups, and even school board candidates have challenged a host of books in New Hanover County school libraries, alleging they are obscene or pornographic. But the latest challenge objects to something else: learning about racism in America's past.

“I want to bring to your attention the book, Stamped, assigned to the AP Language and Comp class at Ashley High School. This book contains Marxist ideology, inaccurate reframing of history, untruths, and disrespect for our nation and the Bible," Katie Gates said, speaking at a school board meeting in January.

She’s a parent, currently petitioning Ashley High School to remove the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You

Katie Gates at the public comment period in January 2023.
NHCS YouTube
Katie Gates at a public comment period in July 2022 talking about Constitution Day.

Written by Jason Reynolds, it was adapted for students from the work of Ibram X. Kendi, a Black author whose work on racism has made him a target of the American far right.

Kelli Kidwell, an educator for close to 25 years, assigned the book to her advanced placement (AP) students.

“[Reynolds] goes through the foundations of colonialism, the start of America, and then up through modern day, and just different ways racism has appeared, and people have tried to fight against it, and how it's impacting people,” Kidwell said.

Kelli Kidwell's AP Language and Composition classroom
Rachel Keith
Kelli Kidwell's AP Language and Composition classroom

According to email records, on December 13, 2022, Gates first notified Kidwell about her issues with the book. She wrote, “Notice that I have cced the School Board and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s assistant who will be reporting this to the F.A.C.T.S commission.”

Kidwell responded the next day to Gates, “Thank you for bringing your concerns to my attention.”

In August 2021, Robinson published a report entitled, ‘Indoctrination in Public Education’ – and at a press conference for the report, he said this was “only the beginning” for rooting out biased teaching.

Related: Some call it ‘teaching history,’ others call it ‘indoctrination,’ and the fight is far from over

In her first email to Kidwell and her January public comment, Gates objected to Stamped’s approach to history. For example, she took issue with the book’s claim that the Biblical story of Ham was later used to justify slavery.

“‘God would curse Ham’s children to be dark and disgusting, Black, and bad.’ The author states that the story is an example of curse theory that anchors and would justify slavery in America. Stamped also contains misinformation and disrespect of our founding fathers,” Gates said in January.

But the historical argument in Stamped is neither new nor unfounded — and scholars mainly agree that Christian slaveholders used the Bible as one of the justifications for chattel slavery. And, when Ashley’s 13-person Media and Technology Advisory Committee (MTAC), which included educators, parents, and students, reviewed Gates’ request to ban the book, it noted Stamped contains 184 source notes, many of which are primary sources.

Additionally, in her defense of the founders during the January board meeting, Gates falsely suggested that Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. Gates also cited Declaration of Independence signers Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin as having "released their own slaves." Rush owned one slave, bought as a child, who was later "freed for compensation," meaning Rush earned money in the transaction; Franklin owned two slaves, who he freed late in life.

Gates said that a proper curriculum would respect the founders. In her December 13 email, Gates said, “Teach from the classics, teach classic principles. Please do not bring political, controversial texts into the classroom.” But Kidwell said she does teach the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and various speeches from the founding fathers.

Further, Kidwell said Stamped is presented in her college-level course as just one perspective.

“And that's actually one of the premises that the AP College Board puts out, is that we're not about saying a kid has to prescribe to a certain philosophy or ideology,” Kidwell said. “When we talk about the stuff, we're just exposing them to a range of thinking, and a range of theories that exist, and then asking them to analyze what's being said, how it's being said; is it effective?”

In response to Gates’ concern, Kidwell offered an alternate book assignment for her child. But Kidwell is concerned about banning it outright.

“There's a fundamental difference between saying I would prefer my kid not to read this book, and saying no kid should read this book. And to give that kind of carte blanche control, that any idea that comes up in a book that bothers someone they can just say no kid can have access to it, is very troubling,” Kidwell said.

 Banned book posters on Kidwell's wall
Rachel Keith
Banned book poster on Kidwell's wall

Kidwell also said her class includes conversations about the book where students can make comments on the arguments Reynolds is making, including critical ones.

“‘I don’t like his tone.’ ‘I don’t agree with his thinking.’ ‘Good. Now, show me where he’s being angry. Give me a piece of textual evidence,’” Kidwell said, describing the back and forth.

Educator, and board member responses to Gates

Gates also emailed all the board members on December 13, saying, “The 1619 Project and critical race theory (CRT) has no place in America and American public schools. America was not founded on injustice and slavery.”

On December 15, Board member Josie Barnhart said to Gates, “the question that comes to mind is what state-level objectives did this book cover.” She suggested to Gates that she figure out why this book was approved for classroom instruction. She added that she would discuss it further with other board members.

On that same day, Kidwell sent a four-page document to Gates listing the nine state standards that applied to the book. She mentioned that these were all located in the syllabus that students received at the beginning of the semester.

She wrote that the college board opposes “censorship [and] indoctrination.” She said the course fosters “an open-minded approach to histories and cultures of different people and [an] unflinching encounter with evidence” and that the course is a “choice for parents and students.”

Kidwell also addressed CRT in her letter to Gates, saying that it was a concept she heard about just a few years ago when she started working on her doctorate.

“It seems to be a catch-all for any conversation that deals with race. But be assured, I have not learned enough about CRT to begin teaching it to AP students. [...] However, I do think it is vital for high school students to delve into topics like race and religion,” she wrote.

On December 19, Barnhart responded to another email from Gates, saying she “wanted to know how the school documented the concern of the assignment.”

When WHQR reached out to Barnhart about these exchanges, the subject line was ‘Banned book/Stamped book’ story. She replied, “I can see from your title an attempt to sensationalize a story, which has not happened. To my knowledge, the parent has not been presented with the information she asked for. In my opinion, rigor means depth of knowledge on a subject matter which should not translate into to be intentionally divisive content.”

Board member Pat Bradford went further when Gates reached out to her. On December 19 at 5 p.m., she wrote, “Please send us (all) excerpts of materials you are speaking about in this email? [sic]”

But six hours later, Bradford wrote to Gates, “Ignore my previous email re: examples please. This is horrifying.”

Recent movement toward banning books

While Gates’ recent challenge was against one book, for years she has alleged that the district is indoctrinating students with left-leaning ideologies.

At a July 2021 school board meeting, Gates said, “So I believe that vague and generalized concepts in these [social studies] standards leave the door wide open for our schools to abuse the teaching of civics and history by using that time and space to teach SEL — social emotional learning and critical race theory concepts like equity and implicit bias. They indoctrinate and categorize our kids and they divide not unify.”

Gates told WHQR that the “recent evidence of Stamped being used in the AP classroom justifies my concern from back in 2021.”

And she isn’t alone. Current school board members Bradford and Melissa Mason made similar allegations while running for office.

On several occasions, Mason alleged that district employees were complicit in giving young students access to pornography, citing books like All Boys Aren’t Blue and Out of Darkness. These two books were not taught but found in some libraries, according to district spokesperson Russell Clark.

Related: NHCSO investigated schools for ‘obscene and pornographic’ books, DA found no unlawful content

Those books were two of nine included in a criminal complaint to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. But when the District Attorney’s office declined to file charges, Mason voiced her frustration at the July 2022 school board meeting.

“Concerned parents took nine books to the sheriff, but the DA says state law prevents prosecuting school employees for giving harmful material to kids. As long as it's part of your job, you can show porn to kids. It's protected by the First Amendment. This is an absurd lie, obviously," Mason said.

Bradford also spoke, calling for the books to be removed. Stamped was one of the nine books.

“You have the power to change the policy that allowed these books into our schools," Bradford told the board.

At the time, Bradford and Mason had recently secured spots in the general election, having respectivelyplaced first and second in the May Republican primary.

But that wasn’t the last criminal complaint. Education activist Gail Major filed another one late last year. Officials with the Sheriff’s office said they reviewed over 80 books — but none met the DA’s definition of criminal content.

Unsatisfied with the decision, Major appealed to the New Hanover County Commissioners at their most recent meeting.

“These books have shown obscenity, pornography; this is very important: exploitation, child abuse, gender ideology, slavery, incest, mental health anguish, one of the hardest ones for us to see, self-harm, inflammatory racial and religious commentary, illegal drugs, and underage drinking, to name a few. We started with pornography. And that's where it led us. It led us to why these kids cannot learn," Major said.

Kidwell said these public accusations are painful to hear.

“Teachers don't want to be in this war. Like, we're just trying to go in a classroom, and do our job. It's a really hard job. And I think most of us understand very fully the gravity of the situation, like we have children in front of us, and they listen to what we say, we have an element of influence and control that we take seriously,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell said she just wants her students to be critical thinkers. And she said allegations that misconstrue that kind of work as indoctrination are part of what’s pushing teachers out of the profession.

“These issues are just going to keep coming up until we make peace with them. I get that parents feel like they can protect their kids from suffering and hurt by keeping them from these ideas, but at some point, they’re going to have to face them.[...] I feel like as a society, on either [side of the] political spectrum, we should come together and say, ‘Hey, education is important. And we would like our kids to engage with new ideas,' and I don’t think that is a partisan issue," Kidwell said.

The appeal process

A few weeks ago, Ashley’s Media and Technology Advisory Committee (MTAC) effectively denied Gates’ petition to remove Stamped. 

In its decision, the committee wrote, “[t]his book is an argument. Students taking the AP Language test will be expected to write an argument and to interpret and analyze [one]. [...] Also, we must take into account the original author who did the research is a specialist in African American history. [...] Students can then choose to either emulate or avoid the tactics used in a text when they craft their own arguments.”

For her part, Gates said she plans on appealing that decision. That will lead first to the district’s Curriculum & Media Center Branch Review Committee.

Members of this group support the school MTAC committees for any school-level objections. The makeup of this committee is the following:

  • Assistant Superintendent of Technology & Digital Learning
  • Chief Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer
  • Director of Curriculum and Instruction
  • Lead Media Coordinator/Librarian
  • High School Principal of the Year*
  • Teacher of the Year*
  • Lead K-5 ELA Teacher
  • Lead 6-12 ELA Teacher
  • Lead K-12 SS Teacher

*Note: According to the district, if the challenge is at the school of the principal or teacher of the year, another representative will be selected in their place.

Gates could then and, if necessary, appeal to the school board, which has discretion over whether to conduct a public hearing on the case.

When asked how she would feel if Stamped was banned, Kidwell said, “I'd be scared because I guess like, ultimately, that same fear I have is the same fear of the parents who want it to be gone have. To me, I think it is dangerous to shut off information and knowledge and access. And they think it's dangerous to have it. And so like those seem like at opposite poles and unresolvable in a lot of ways.”

*Below is the decision of the committee, and emails showing some of the arguments of Gates and Kidwell.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR