Reported for Teaching About Race
Mary Wood, an English teacher with 14 years of experience, found herself at the centre of a controversy when two of her Advanced Placement English Language and Composition (AP Lang) students reported her for teaching about race. Wood assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” a book exploring the Black experience in America, which led to accusations that she made her all-white class feel uncomfortable about their race, in violation of South Carolina’s proviso.
This incident unfolded in the backdrop of South Carolina’s growing restrictions on education related to race, a trend seen in many parts of the United States. As the debate over how to teach race, racism, and history intensifies, Wood’s case became a polarising national topic.
“Between the World and Me,” a nonfiction book penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2015 and released by Spiegel & Grau, serves as a letter from Coates to his adolescent son. In this work, Coates explores his own perspectives on the emotions, symbolism, and lived experiences related to being Black in the United States.
Authenticity and Trust
Wood, a Chapin, South Carolina native and alumna of the same high school where she teaches, believed in teaching authentically, including using thought-provoking texts like Coates’s. However, the backlash from her students, their parents, and the school system left her feeling defeated and betrayed.
Her situation divided the Chapin community, with some advocating for her dismissal while others supported her as an advocate for inclusive education. Republican state representatives joined the debate, labelling her actions as breaking the law, while county National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) leaders defended her.
South Carolina was one of the states that had implemented restrictions on education related to race since 2021. Wood’s case was not unique, as many educators have faced consequences for their teaching methods, reflecting the deep divides in American society on these issues.
The controversy left Wood questioning how she could rebuild trust with her students, as her commitment to authenticity clashed with the fear of being reported for any aspect of her teaching. As she faced the new school year, she grappled with the challenge of making her students trust her again.
“It’s not necessarily, ‘Do I trust my students?’, it’s like, ‘Do other people trust me?’ and I feel like it really worries me because that’s, kind of, gone,'” 47-year-old Woods told The Washington Post in an audio that AkweyaTV monitored on the news site.
Unheard and Undermined
The incident began when two students reported feeling uncomfortable about their race due to the materials Wood assigned. Their emails triggered a chain of events that led to Wood being reprimanded and ordered not to discuss the issue with her students. It marked a dramatic departure from her previous teaching experiences and her belief in open and challenging discussions.
While Wood did not blame her students for their reaction, she was concerned that they went directly to the school board instead of discussing their discomfort with her. The school’s response left her feeling unheard and undermined.
The situation escalated when Wood, with the support of fellow teachers and community members, decided to remove “Between the World and Me” from her classroom. The move received mixed reactions from students and added to the growing divide within the school community.
Race Polarises Community, Again
Over the summer, Wood faced public scrutiny and debated the role of educators in addressing sensitive topics like race and racism. The public meetings revealed the deeply polarised opinions within her town and state.
Reacting to the controversy online, Rowland Laedlein wrote: “I had never read anything by Ta Nehisi Coates but saw an article about a teacher in South Carolina being punished by her school board for including Between the World and Me as a reading assignment for students. The claim by a couple of students was that the book made them feel guilty or ashamed of being white and thus against SC law. I needed to see for myself what the complaint might be. Now I am really confused. This was a wonderful, sensitive, and revealing book that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that any of the legislators who banned books like this ever read them. Such a shame.”
Two years earlier, Kamarea Valentine wrote an opinion that differed: “The novel Between the World and Me provides an outlook on the Black experience of the author and that is it. It is a novel that lacks nuance of how society constructed this experience and what it means to live in a society built by both white supremacy and capitalism. It is a watered downed neoliberal take at best. While there is truth to the words the author writes and a Black person aware of their blackness could resonate with it, it leaves readers misled and confused who lack the proper analysis of our society. Coates’ words are personal to his experience and to his son but are impersonal to the black community.”
Trying to strike a balance, Govindarajulu-Kasturi intervened earlier in June 2023, saying, “Good book written with a mission to teach life skills for Black children living in USA. US is still trigger happy & looks at others (non-whites) as Whiteman’s Burden. Whereas European colonialists have fair tolerance to multi ethnic society living in harmony. Pray things change from the bottom of the heart of Whites rather than preaching on the ideals of liberalism & civic society. In the same token Coloured also should take responsibility for their lifestyle & values rather than always blaming the context.”
Woods Determined to Continue Teaching Race
Despite the controversy and personal challenges, Wood returned to school with a determination to continue teaching authentically. She aimed to rebuild trust with her students by emphasising the importance of open dialogue and understanding different perspectives.
As she began her new school year this September of 2023, Wood hoped to navigate the complex terrain of teaching race and history in an increasingly polarised society, with the goal of fostering critical thinking and empathy among her students.