In late November of 2016, a petition was passed around by students at Nandua High School asking that the books be put back on the shelves. They were asked to not pass it around on school property and then took the petition to the protest led by Charles Knitter.
The student who created the petition, Sadye Saunders, talked with us about how she created the petition, why, and what her experience was. The challenge to both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, made her speak up and push for a change.
SADYE SAUNDERS INTERVIEW
Sophia and Karina: Did you grow up in Accomack County and have you always gone to school there? If not, when did you start attending school there and where did you go before?
Sadye Saunders: I grew up in Northampton County right on the border of Accomack County; however, this has never separated students as many were involved in activities that included both counties. I came to Nandua High School freshman year, and before that I attended Broadwater Academy.
S & K: Did you read To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn for a class? If so, how did the discussion go?
Sadye: We read them sophomore year, and my teacher was always very open for discussion. He also explained before we read them that the language used was to correctly use historical language and to portray the ignorance of those in the past. The writers, he explained, were adamant about racial issues and very much against the ideas that were spread in the books.
S & K: How were the books taught?
Sadye: We read them at home, and then we would discuss what was happening in the book in class.
S & K: What were some of the themes you analyzed in the texts?
Sadye: Racism was definitely a theme that was brought up but there were also themes such as greed, and how children were portrayed in literature, and historical context. We studied a broad range of themes in the books.
S & K: Did you ever hear of any other student complaining about being uncomfortable?
Sadye: No student really complained about the books. One, because my teacher thoroughly explained the reasoning behind the language, and two, because the kids actually read the books before making comments on them.
S & K: Why did you decide to start a petition?
Sadye: I am very much open to discussing the ignorance of the past, as I believe this is how we can analyze the racism of the past and address the systematic racism of today. Getting rid of the books from the curriculum eliminates the conversation in which many people may not have in their own home, and pushes people back into a complacent incomprehension rather than addressing the root of the problem.
S & K: How did you start the petition?
Sadye: I pretty much just set up a word document that stated those in favor of keeping the books on the shelves and in the curriculum and had spaces for people to sign it.
S & K: How many people signed it?
Sadye: Overall, I believe close to one-hundred and fifty students signed it. Once at the protest, I believe a little over three-hundred signed it.
S & K: In news articles, it said that your petition was taken away by the school, did that happen?
Sadye: It was taken away until the end of the day, and was returned to me; however, I was told I was not allowed to have people sign it at school, and that if I wanted to continue that I would have to do it off of school grounds.
S & K: If so, how did the school find out and take it away?
Sadye: I was getting people to sign it, and a particular student came up to me and started arguing that I had no voice in the matter because I was not black. I do believe that I should not voice myself over those who have been oppressed because I will never relate to that struggle as I am white and will never be able to put myself into the shoes of people of color; however, the student had not even read the books, and I told him this was not me belittling his struggle, but rather me wanting to open up to the topics of racism.
S & K: What did you do after the school banned your petition?
Sadye: I would like to say that I fought it and did it anyways, but I sadly, did not. I was told I would receive consequences if I continued. I am not upset with the principal who did this because, his hands were tied in the situation because of those higher up. He was just following orders as I did after he told me.
S & K: How did you come to be a part of the protest?
Sadye: My principal actually was the one who told me about the protest. He said that I could not have my petition signed at school, but there was nothing I could not do at the protest. I found this to be the best place to have many sign my petition.
S & K: What was the atmosphere like at the protest?
Sadye: In some ways, it was a little more aggressive than I had hoped. More people were angry than I thought were going to be. I was never really angry, but rather disappointed in those who were trying to ban the book because they did not understand the relevance of this book and what all it taught. I feel anger has a way of putting walls up, and I understand it is definitely necessary when those higher up do not listen to the people, but this had not elevated to that point. I felt, that had we just sat down and explained the nature of the books and what they meant that nothing would have been taken further. I did enjoy, though, that this many people cared about the problems of racism just because of the area I have grown up in. I have always lived in a rural area, and the stereotype here is that many people are ignorant of the racism of today, but talking with many people gave me a different perspective.
The protest Sadye referenced occurred on December 2, 2016. Concerned citizen Charles Knitter and a group of 50 others, including students and parents, gathered outside the Accomack County Courthouse in protest of the banning of To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He advertised the event on Facebook while word spread throughout the community. Charles Knitter, who organized the event, said that the school district has a “leadership problem.”
Many of the protesters agreed that the book is not racist but is condemning it. Historian Kentoya Downing-Garcia spoke at the rally saying that this book is important to show the history of racism and discrimination. The protesters stayed for hours until Knitter ended the protest by reading a chapter from the novel.
The protest and petition was covered by local and national new sources, such as the Los Angeles Times, causing the Accomack County School Board to crack down on their policies regarding the removal of materials when a complaint is made and how they would respond.