HOOVER, Ala. (WIAT) — Multiple Alabama schools have canceled events featuring a Black, award-winning, New York Times-bestselling children’s author.
The events, which had been scheduled to take place during Black History Month in Hoover and Alabaster City Schools, were canceled without explanation earlier this week, according to Derrick Barnes, the author. He believes the cancellations were political, he said Thursday, and motivated by ignorance and fear.
Alabaster City Schools has not yet responded for requests for comment as of publication time. A representative of Hoover City Schools said the cancellations were due to a contract issue.
In an e-mail sent Wednesday, an employee of Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover initially notified staff that Barnes would no longer be visiting the school.
“Derrick Barnes’ plans have changed and he will not be visiting in a few weeks,” the e-mail said.
Barnes told CBS 42 that any implication that he backed out of the scheduled events is a “boldfaced lie.”
Asked for comment by CBS 42, Hoover City Schools said in a statement that the cancellations were due to a contract issue.
“The Hoover City Schools District apologizes for the inconvenience caused to author Derrick
Barnes and his team,” a representative wrote. “The cancellation of Mr. Barnes’ visit to Bluff Park, Deer Valley, and Gwin Elementary Schools next month is due to the lack of a contract requested on three (3) occasions. It is the district’s business practice to require contracts for services provided or goods exchanged.”
Barnes doesn’t buy the explanation. He said the cancellations are part of a nationwide trend of limiting access to books that feature Black protagonists and books that tell the truth about American history.
“I hate this so much because like most writers, I’m an introvert,” Barnes said. “I try to stay very low key and write the books that I write and hope that children fall in love.”
Barnes grew up in a single-parent home in Kansas City, Missouri, where his mother was a nurse. Even as a child, Barnes an avid reader, he said, and before long, he turned his attention to writing as well. He would start his writing career as the first full-time black copywriter for Hallmark and would later move to writing his own children’s books.
In 2017, after publishing several other children’s books, Barnes’ picture book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” garnered nationwide attention, earning a Newberry Honor, a Caldecott Honor, a Coretta Scott King award, and the Kirkus Prize.
“Crown,” the author said, was one of the books he planned to read at the events that had been scheduled at Bluff Park, Gwin, and Deer Valley Elementary Schools in Hoover and another elementary school in Alabaster.
His books, Barnes said, include no rationally objectionable material. They focus on telling stories of Black kids he didn’t see in books he read growing up.
“I really try to focus on writing books where Black children are doing ‘slice of life’ things,” he said. “When I first got into the industry, all the books that were written by Black authors that got awards were always about civil rights or slavery. No bedtime stories. No stories about going to school.”
Barnes said it’s important that children of all races see Black kids represented in literature.
“It’s important that white children, too, get a chance to see children that don’t look like them doing the same things they do: having a family, having people around them that love and care about them, and just doing everyday things,” Barnes explained.
It’s frustrating, he said, that anyone would be opposed to such an effort.
“But if you’re Black in this country and you’re an artist, it automatically makes you an activist,” he said. “Because I think ‘you really don’t want me to come speak to your kids? What have I done other than spread love?'”
The cancellations have been a financial hit for Barnes, he said, but the money is the least of his worries. (Hoover City Schools said in a statement it plans to reimburse “travel costs and a portion of his engagement fee.”)
“I think this is based in a lot of ignorance,” Barnes said of the cancellations.
The Alabama cancellations come amid a nationwide wave of book bans and legislative interest in limiting access to certain literature, particularly in elementary school libraries. One of the first bills pre-filed in the Alabama Legislature this year, for example, bans the discussion of “divisive concepts” in Alabama schools.
“We need this so that we can foster a great place for our children to go to school and get their education and that they’re not being taught the things that we feel very uncomfortable for them to hear,” the legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Debbie Wood, has said.
Literature isn’t always about feeling comfortable, Barnes said, but it’s outrageous to think that the aim of some children’s authors is to make white children feel bad.
“That’s not why we disseminate real history,” he said. “We talk about Fannie Lou Hammer, about Malcolm X, about Black Wall Street, because these are people that really existed and events that really happened.”
He said he believes that when children learn the realities of American history, it may motivate them to work together — across racial lines — to make the country a better place for everyone. That’s what politicians are afraid of, Barnes said.
Continuing to teach a “whitewashed” version of history benefits no one, Barnes said.
“If you’re a white kid in Hoover and you’re taught stereotypical views of those that don’t look like you, how does that make us a better country?” He asked.
Barnes said the whole turn of events has been very disheartening, but that he’s heard from multiple Alabama parents who are upset about the cancellations.
“I’m glad to hear from those parents,” he said. “It gives you hope that maybe the world isn’t going completely crazy.”
Barnes still has one scheduled event in Alabama next month — pizza with the author at the Hoover Public Library — an event scheduled to take place February 7 at 5 p.m.
Barnes said he’d love for anyone interested to come out to the event. That includes, he said, whoever made the decision to cancel the school visits.
“I just want to sit face-to-face with the people who think it’s okay to keep their children away from history,” he said. “I’ve never had a visit canceled in the years I’ve been doing this. I just want to ask, person-to-person: What is the issue?”
UPDATE: In a statement sent after this article’s publication, a representative of Alabaster City Schools said that the system is “in communication” with Barnes’ team “about clarifying logistics and any miscommunication surrounding his original date.” The representative said the system still hopes to host Barnes if a mutual agreement is reached.