Smithfield High students challenged to read ‘woke’

Published 5:22 pm Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Parents push back, say books ‘disparage white people’


This coming school year, Smithfield High School’s library will again be challenging its students to read “woke.”

The slang term refers to an awareness of injustice, particularly racism, in society. The “Read Woke” challenge — in the words of its creator, Georgia high school librarian Cicely Lewis — is “a movement,” “a form of education” and “a call to action.”

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Smithfield High started the challenge in November. It involves reading from a selection of 70 books, all available at Smithfield High’s library, that — in Lewis’ words — challenge a social norm, give voice to the voiceless, provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised, seek to change the status quo, or have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group. 

Titles include “Being Jazz,” a memoir by reality TV star Jazz Jennings on her high school experience as a transgender teenager; “I Am Malala,” an autobiography by Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who at age 15 was shot by the Taliban on the bus home from school in Pakistan; and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” by Jason Reynolds. 

“Stamped,” according to its description, “reveals the history of racist ideas in America,” “inspires hope for an antiracist future” and “takes you on a race journey from then to now” to show “how the poison of racism lingers.”

For those who prefer novels, there’s “This is My America” by Kim Johnson.

“Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row,” states the novel’s description. “After seven years, Tracy is running out of time — her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a ‘thug’ on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened … But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?”

Students who read one book will get their picture displayed on the library’s Read Woke wall. Those who read two will receive a Read Woke button, and those who read three will receive a Read Woke T-shirt. Students are encouraged to share their reading on social media using the hashtags #ReadWokeSHS and #BooksMatter.

According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, the challenge is entirely voluntary and ungraded. It’s a way to “continue to encourage students to read for pleasure,” she said.

But the school system is already getting pushback from parents, among them Jason Maresh, who argues the books “disparage white people as privileged, inherently racist, oppressors and victimizers” and “are designed to instill the feeling of discomfort and guilt upon white children” and “rage in black children against their ‘oppressive’ white supremacist country.”

“We have reviewed some of the listed books at random and we are not only offended but repulsed with what we have found,” Maresh said in an Aug. 29 letter to Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton and the members of Isle of Wight’s School Board.

He takes particular issue with the profanity in “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas.

The letter is signed by Maresh, Heidi Swartz of Smithfield, Jennifer Boykin and Adina Rose, both of Carrsville, Candice Vande Brake of Windsor, Garrett Porter of Carrollton and Landon and Stacey Eaton, also of Carrollton.

The signers say the challenge is an example of “divisive” Critical Race Theory making its way into public schools. Critical Race Theory, as previously reported, refers to the study of how American law and institutions have perpetuated social, economic and political inequalities among minority groups. Per the American Bar Association definition, CRT, as it’s often abbreviated, rejects arguments that confine racism to intentional acts by a few “bad apples” and argues meritocracy or “colorblindness” can still result in disparities in the experiences of whites versus people of color.

The Southern and Central Isle of Wight Citizens Group — of which Maresh, Boykin, Rose, Swartz and Porter are members — voted unanimously in July to issue a statement in opposition to CRT and “all related tenets thereof” being “taught or suggested to either students or staff” in Isle of Wight’s school system.

School officials have repeatedly stated Isle of Wight isn’t teaching CRT, and that the recent teacher training by Isle of Wight’s coordinator of equity and inclusion, Kiyaana Cox-Jones, is intended to familiarize faculty with the language being used in the Virginia Department of Education’s EdEquityVA initiative. Equity in education, according to the VDOE, involves eliminating the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, ZIP code, ability, socioeconomic status or languages spoken at home.

A number of speakers, Maresh among them, have spoken in opposition to the training at School Board meetings over the past several months, arguing it would trickle down to students and set Blacks and whites against each other.

“We are not teaching students about equity and inclusion,” Thornton had assured the speakers at the School Board’s June 10 meeting.

But Maresh argues the Read Woke challenge is an example of how the division is now “moving to CRT at the student level.”

The books, he argues, amount to “critical race focused indoctrination of students,” and are “totally inappropriate for inclusion into our public schools.”

“We demand it [the Read Woke Challenge] be removed immediately,” Maresh writes.

Thornton, however, maintains his June 10 statement is accurate.

“We do not have a curriculum or required reading on Critical Race Theory,” Thornton said. “Some parents have their own opinions of books that we may have in our Library as qualifying as teaching CRT, but we do not agree with their interpretation of the materials.”

Thornton responded to Maresh’s letter via email Aug. 31, reiterating Briggs’ point that the challenge is optional.

“The books on the list do not focus on ‘destructive critical race theory’ (your words) and the characterizations you list in your letter are opinion and not fact,” Thornton writes. “While your letter included excerpts from three of the 70 books on the list, I do find it interesting that the books you highlighted focused on black or African American characters. What did you think of the other books, such as ‘I am Malala,’ or ‘The Librarian of Auschwitz,’ or ‘I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.’ Your letter clearly states, ‘These books present narratives related to racism, sexual orientation, sexual preferences, drug use, violence and more.’ Where are your objections to other books with racist language such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ by Mark Twain or ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ by JD Salinger? These books are available to our students right now and will stay that way.”

According to Thornton, the school division will provide alternative assignments when parents object to their children reading a required book, but, “I also find it interesting that you wish to squelch any books, or statements, that don’t conform to your way of thinking,” Thornton writes. “It seems the position you are promoting is that statements, documents, books, and any other materials that don’t conform with your views on race, culture, and society are wrong. Maybe they are just different. Why does a different perspective or position have to be wrong?

“Our children do not live in a bubble from the world. The mere fact that they are attending public school exposes them to people of many different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. The same applies to watching TV, using the internet, playing on a sports team, taking a dance class, or anything else where children may interact with others. Our schools provide children opportunities to learn academics but also skills on collaboration, critical thinking, compassion, creativity, and citizenship. Those skills are just as important as math and science based on feedback from our business partners.”

Thornton also took issue with the signatures on the letter, stating he was aware of only one of the letter’s signers having a child enrolled at Smithfield High.

Editor’s note: This version corrects the name of the author of “The Hate U Give.”