A Tuscaloosa BBQ joint. (Aaron Cassara)
Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, Nation contributor Nona Willis Aronowitz will be guest-blogging while she’s on a reporting road trip to Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Jackson and New Orleans. Look for her dispatches at TheNation.com!
On Monday night, I met a bunch of high school kids at a private boarding school in Indian Springs, Alabama, a town twenty minutes outside of Birmingham. I’d been invited to read from my book, Girldrive, which they’d been assigned in class. I glanced at their impressive Women’s Studies reading list, which was splayed out on the table: Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. During the Q&A, a girl with a shock of bleached blond hair snaking through her dark bob asked me: “What did you and Emma have in mind as your audience for Girldrive—given that this book would be banned in other Alabama schools?”
I thought back to reading things like On the Road, rife with hookers and drunkenness, in my New York City public high school. Then I remembered that, statistically, Alabama is the most conservative state in the nation. Book-banning, of course, is technically illegal, but “a teacher will try to teach a book, and someone will complain from the PTA, and then the book will be withdrawn,” says Jessica Smith, the school’s librarian. And it’s not just books with sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. “Harry Potter is one of the most banned books in the country because of witchcraft—non-Christian thinking.”
Not all Alabamans think this way. But it occurred to me that the progressive parents of Indian Springs School pay between $18,450 and $41,000 a year for their kids to be able to read a book containing references to pot-smoking sessions, an acid trip, casual sex, blow jobs and rape.
So how do you raise a progressive child in a sea of red? It depends on which city you live in, but it usually takes a good amount of effort—and resources. Smith says that, like most cities with a cavernous wealth gap, Birmingham’s good public schools are white and the struggling inner-city schools are black. But both are dominated by religious students.
“If you have a kid [in Birmingham] and you’re raising them as non-Christian and any other alternative, there aren’t that many places they can go and not be harassed,” Smith says. She tells me that parents shell out not only for Indian Springs’ rigorous, open-minded curriculum, but for the ethnic and religious diversity the school offers. (Smith points out the school gives a good amount of scholarships, too.)