Teach the Truth: A Conversation with Jerry Craft

Teach the Truth: Black History Month

During Black History Month, TFN’s Teach the Truth campaign is highlighting Black authors who are currently fighting to keep their books in public school libraries and classrooms.

Numerous Black authors have watched as right-wing leaders ban their books from libraries and classrooms across the country, and in Texas, a state rep has launched an investigation targeting hundreds of titles.

One book of the books on the list is Class Act by Jerry Craft. Craft, who is one of only a handful of syndicated Black cartoonists in the United States, sat down with us to discuss the impact of classroom censorship on his work, public school students, and the community as a whole.

How would you describe your book’s primary message?

“I feel like the primary messages in both New Kid and Class Act are empathy. My goal was to create stories that would make both kids and adults stop before they made judgments of others. I wanted them to think before they filled in the blanks in statements such as:

They are African American so that must mean they ____.

She’s a girl, so that must mean she ____.

They are rich (or they are NOT rich) so they must be ____.”

How has the current political climate surrounding classroom censorship impacted your work?

“As an artist, anything that doesn’t kill you gives you ideas for your next book.

I’ve never sought to write stories that are controversial just to get attention. What I wanted to write about was family humor. A Jerry Craft book almost always has a loving family, friendships, kids who have dreams, positive messages, and LOTS of humor. I tend to stay away from the stereotypical “history or misery” storylines that were in so many of the books that I was forced to read in my childhood. Slavery. Civil Rights. Gangs. Police. Not that those aren’t important stories. But in my opinion, any book where a kid sees themselves and wants to voluntarily read on their own, is an important book.

The sad part is how the kids are missing out on great literature that is both inclusive and a reflection of the diversity in our society that makes this country great. I know how hard I worked to fight the stereotypes of not only Black kids, but ALL kids. I included characters like Liam (a rich white kid who is extremely compassionate), Alexandra (an outsider who makes sock puppets), Samira (a Muslim girl in Class Act who loves to make jokes), as well as Asian and LatinX characters. So it really does say a lot that THIS is the book that is being banned.”

What advice would you give other Black authors currently facing backlash for their books?

“The same that I would say to any author. Stay true to yourself. Which I know can be tough because this is your livelihood and your passion, and no one ever wants to feel rejected or attacked. But don’t let the views of a few misguided people drown out the importance of your work. Somewhere there is a kid who feels that they are the only human on Earth who feels the way they do. Then they meet the character from your book. And they are not alone. And that’s the importance of what we do!”

How can our audience continue to support Black authors throughout the year?

“In the past, it would have just been to purchase the books. The fact that Maus was recently both number one AND number three on the Amazon bestseller list shows you that there are still so many good people who are still willing to rally to support a cause. HOWEVER, the people who are against so many diverse authors seem to have a much more calculating agenda. They are joining school boards. They are volunteering to oversee elections. They are running for office. So, unless we do that as well, I fear that there will be more laws that are made to ban the teaching of critical race theory in middle school even though NO MIDDLE SCHOOL IN AMERICA TEACHES CRITICAL RACE THEORY!!!

In New Kid, there’s a scene where the protagonist, Jordan Banks, loses his sketchbook diary. His teacher finds it, reads it, and accuses him of being angry and attacking what the school stands for. His reply is, “it’s okay that this stuff happens to us… it’s just not okay for us to complain about it.” That seems to sum up everything that is happening these days. History is literally being rewritten or ignored. Which is extremely dangerous.

Also, on a personal level, New Kid is the only book ever to win the Newbery Medal, The Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the Kirkus Prize, and I’ve gotten so much more attention because of one woman from Texas who didn’t want her kid to read my book. We need to celebrate the positive, not just wait to defend against the negative.”

If allowed the opportunity to speak with legislators currently targeting your book, what would you say?

“In New Kid and Class Act, my goal was to talk about how to respect each other. Gran’pa tells Jordan, ‘You don’t have to like everyone, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it, either.’ It’s about teaching us the importance of to taking that extra moment to learn how to properly pronounce someone’s name. Or to find out where they’re from. To embrace, not only our similarities, but also our differences. To LISTEN. We claim that we want our kids to be better. Then we tether them to the same weight of bigotry and superiority that continually divides us. Learning about our history is not to make anyone feel guilty, or inferior. It’s to make sure that we improve on what we’ve done as a nation and ensure that we don’t continually make the same mistakes of the past. The American Dream is not for a select few. It’s something that we should all aspire to, while also helping others to achieve their dreams. But by not giving your kids access to the tools that will allow them to become compassionate adults, you do us all a disservice. So if we aren’t a country that embraces others, and allows us the freedom to say what we want, and to read what we want, and to dream our dreams—everything that we stand for on paper—then we’re laying the foundation for an America that is truly UN-American!”