The Mis-education of a Suburban White Boy: How Reading Banned Books Helped Unfuck My Upbringing

by Brian Lindenmuth

I grew up in a blue collar (what we would now call a “working class white”) family in Baltimore County in the 80s. It was a fairly racially mixed and religiously diverse area that has continued to diversify over the years, frankly, because of white flight. By the start of the next decade, my parents had white-flighted out of Baltimore to a neighboring rural farming county

I have plenty of fond memories growing up in the 80s. But I’ve also learned to cut through the romanticizing bullshit because mixed in with all the good stuff were other moments. If someone was going out after dark, they would be reminded to take a “n***** knocker”. A wood club, usually a tool handle of some sort. That way if you got jumped, you could defend yourself. If there was a fight in the halls at school in February between a white kid and a black kid, white students would gather around and chant, “Fight, fight, black versus white. If the white don’t win, we’ll all jump in.” When I was a kid I once turned my Orioles cap around backwards and was told by a relative to, “Stop wearing your hat like a n*****.”

These were not everyday occurrences, but clearly I still remember them. How did I keep from getting mired in the thinking of those around me? The reductive answer is music and books. I firmly believe that consumption of black art and exposure to all sorts of other people helped unfuck my upbringing.

I was a nerdy kid with a wandering, curious mind, and I was an avid reader. So I already didn’t fit in. I remember spending hours at the Randallstown library, wandering, finding books across a variety of subjects.

I would gravitate to a subject and read everything I could on the subject. I was fascinated with the 60s and read every book I could. Remember that nerdiness I was talking about? I would take notes of all the things mentioned that sounded interesting and seek books on/by them.

Buy Soul on Ice

In one of those books I saw mention of a book called Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. Soul on Ice is a collection of essays that Cleaver, an early leader of The Black Panthers, wrote while in prison. This was a pretty radical book for a suburban white kid to read in his teen years.

In 1975, the year I was born, a group of concerned, white, parents led by a police sergeant, famously broke into a Long Island school and removed books that had appeared on a list released by a Conservative group. Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice was one of the books stolen by the parents.

He patrolled the slums of New York and doesn’t believe “Soul on Ice” and Piri Thomas’ “Down These Mean Streets,” a book about life in the Puerto Rican ghetto that also was banned, “are fairly portraying the average resident of the ghetto. They were designed as novels to sell, to be spectacular and dramatic.”

This police sergeant, stirred by right wing propaganda, decided that he was to be the arbiter of what books kids should read. [In fact, take a moment to read the linked article in its entirety and tell me how much of it sounds familiar.]

What we’re trying to say is that some children can’t absorb this without damage to their psyche,” he said in a recent interview at his home here. “And if just one Island Trees student is adversely affected, I would be totally negligent.”

The issue to him is local control of the schools. “Island Trees is standing up for the traditional system of education in this country,” he said. “If the Supreme Court rules against us, what recourse do the people of Island Trees who don’t want these books have?

The case would go before the Supreme Court in 1982 but the bench did not issue a full-throated defense of the public’s right to read whatever the hell they wanted. “Four ruled that it was unconstitutional, four Justices concluded the contrary (with perhaps a few minor exceptions), and one Justice concluded that the Court need not decide the question.

In my later high school years, African pride was on the rise among my black friends. They wore bold African colors and African pendants and played Public Enemy as loud as they could. They were also reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

My curiosity and love of reading again served me well. I wanted to know more about this book they were all reading and talking about. So I went and got my own copy.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, similarly to Soul on Ice, illustrates the many ways that the established systems of America are against certain people. And that those systems have to change radically, or go away. And these notions scare some white folk. So it too has dealt with challenges over the years.

“Some cases where the The Autobiography of Malcolm X was banned and, or challenged:

**1993: Parents of Duval County, Fla., students challenged the book, calling it disruptive to racial harmony.

**1994: Jacksonville library in Florida only allowed teens with parental permission slips to check the book out. It was restricted due to its “anti-white racism.”

**2014: Teachers at Public School 201 in Flushing, Queens, attempted to bar fourth graders from completing reports about Malcolm X’s life calling the activist “bad” and “violent.”” 

I read all sorts of books that had an impact on me and helped shape who I am today. The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice were formative books for me. If bans on them had succeeded, I would be a different person. Perhaps more like those from when I was growing up.

I’m not special because I read these books and these authors. Everyone should read them. I’m don’t want to be one of the white cats from Fritz the Cat who claim to be “down with the struggle”.

But that early reading did expose me to ideas and thoughts that were different than those that I knew. That there were different perspectives on the same ideas. And that there are other people in the fullness of America, and those people have all had other experiences with America. 

I am grateful to those books for helping me start to think about things differently and with more skepticism. If books are banned, they can’t do that for others.

Brian Lindenmuth
Brian Lindenmuth* has been writing about crime fiction since 2006. He started off as the mystery/crime fiction editor for Mystery Book Spot and was the longtime non-fiction editor of Spinetingler Magazine. Additionally, his work has appeared in Crimespree Magazine, Heliotrope Magazine, BSC Review, Mulholland Books website, and Galley Cat. He was the head of the reading committee
for the annual Spinetingler Awards.
The eyebrows are real, and they’re spectacular.

More from Brian:

The Poetry of Us: Hughes, Dunbar, DuBois and Peele