With open hearts and open ears, students, faculty, and community members welcomed nationally renowned scholar, activist, professor, and author Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor to the podium in Classroom Unit 2. 

On May 24, over 150 people gathered for engaging education’s (e²) annual Change Makers event. This year’s topic was “Resisting Erasure: Unearthing History For Our Futures.”  

Throughout the night, Dr. Taylor spoke about the movement to promote cultural education, as well as the political obstacles of securing Black history, critical race theory, and other ethnocultural courses in American education. 

“Black educators, Black journalists and writers sought to articulate the experiences of Black people, not only for the sake of telling the truth, but also to embolden a Black struggle against the different manifestations of racism across the country,” said Dr. Taylor.

In the wake of national book bans and attacks on ethnic studies and critical race theory, Dr. Taylor emphasized the importance of honest histories and cultural education, which pose crucial opposition to erasure and ignorance. 

Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is the author of several banned books herself: ‘From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation’ and ‘Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,’ which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History.

As a student-initiated outreach and retention program for students of color, e² was excited to host a speaker whose messaging aligns with their mission, according to Sandrine Bekono, outreach coordinator of e² and the African American Theatre Arts Troupe (AATAT).

“We wanted to have someone who is dealing with the outside world, because the outside world is also inside university walls, just happening at the scale of the university,” said Bekono. “What Dr. Taylor talked about today and her overall message pertains to everything that we all have to go through, especially as students of color, to get into institutions like this.” 

During the 1960s, Black college students led national uprisings in which they demanded classes that reflected their lives and history. This movement paved the way for today’s universities and colleges to include studies of culture politics, the history of Black people in one form or another, as well as organizations and programs that have created safe spaces for Black students.

“Black studies suffered political attacks and other kinds of transformations, but did not disappear,” said Dr. Taylor. “Instead, Black studies, including Black feminist studies, became home to a wide variety of people who sought deeper understanding of the Black experience in the United States.” 

Dr. Taylor explained that repression of the movement continues to change the atmosphere through which Black studies has developed. Cultural studies programs remain important arenas in which U.S. racism and imperialism can be critiqued, and the diaspora of the culture can be explored.

Universities now have Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies, offices, and programs that aim to make sure students of color are being properly represented and supported. However, these initiatives are in danger of being compromised.

Recently, Texas politicians introduced and passed Senate Bill 17. The language of the legislation bans colleges and universities in Texas from having DEI offices, which will remove all DEI positions from administration. It also prevents statements of diversity to be considered during the hiring process, and prohibits mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion training. 

Currently, 35 anti-DEI bills have been introduced throughout 20 states in the country. North Dakota and Florida have each already signed anti-DEI bills into law this year. 

Legislation like Texas Senate Bill 17 leaves space for parts of American history to be erased and rewritten in certain state school curriculums, notably ethnic studies and Black history courses. 

“On campuses, the justification for the attack on Black studies [falls] back on the so-called ‘questionable academic validity’: as the critics put it, of Black studies as an academic discipline,” Dr. Taylor said. “Critics argue that ‘Black studies is political, not academic,’ that ‘Black studies is intellectually bankrupt’.”

Erasure does not stop with the introduction of DEI-restrictive legislation. Book bans censoring literature about race, Black history, sexuality, identity, different cultures, and a range of other themes are currently sweeping the nation.

Findings from a recent report by free speech group PEN America show more than 4,000 incidents in which books were banned from school districts around the United States since July 2021. 

Engaging Education’s co-chair Ka’Reil Marshall shared her view on the effects that book bans and legislation have caused on information, education, and programs. To her, banning books and history erases what different underrepresented groups that built this country have done. Essentially, telling them that they don’t matter while pushing certain agendas. 

“It’s harder to thrive in a space when you already don’t feel like it’s made for you. All these stories about your excellence are also being removed,” Marshall said. “It just discourages you from moving upwards.” 

Marshall explained that her main takeaway from the event was to not grow complacent. She emphasized the importance of changing the “not my state, not my problem” mentality in order to stay on top of all social issues and make sure the problems across the country don’t build up, spread, and ultimately become bigger than we can handle. 

The event closed off with discussion surrounding what students can do to organize against epistemological erasure and censorship, which Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor believes that students play a big role in.

“Students need to be in communication with each other on their own campuses, and on other campuses […] about the reason why they’re attacking schools, what we read, and what we think,” said Dr. Taylor. “It is not just because of what goes on on college campuses, but it’s because they think it has implications for what goes on outside of the campus.”