Is it possible to talk about George Floyd’s life, murder at the hands of the police, and the activism his death sparked without talking about systemic racism? This is the very dilemma Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa faced when making a presentation about their book at a Tennessee school.
Initially the two co-authors of award-winning book “His Name Is George Floyd” were excited about the speaking engagement. But they were stunned after allegedly being told that they were prohibited from speaking about systemic racism during the event.
The authors told NBC News they were “blindsided” by the last-minute instructions, “which they believed event organizers issued in accordance with Tennessee laws restricting certain books in schools.”
In 2022, the state legislature passed the Age-Appropriate Materials Act. This law “requires each public school to maintain a list of the materials in the school’s library collection, and to publish it on the schools’ websites in a database that can be accessed by parents,” per the Crossville Chronicle.
The two Washington Post reporters also stated that a week before the event, they were told that their book would not be on hand at the event to be distributed to the K-12 students in attendance.
Samuels was outraged, saying “I was thinking about the great disservice that they’re giving these students who deserve better.”
“I thought about my personal disappointment and feelings of naïveté that despite all the work Tolu and I had done to make sure the book would be written in a way that was accessible to them, a larger system decided that they were going to take it away,” continued Samuels.
“It was really disappointing to hear that our speech was going to be limited,” Olorunnipa stated. “Not only for us, but for the students whose access to knowledge is going to shape their journey in this world and in this country.”
The exact details of who made this call are still unclear. But according to Chalkbeat Tennessee, Memphis Reads, the local group that organized the event “said their instructions to the authors were based on guidance from the school district.”
However, Cathryn Stout, a spokesperson for the Memphis-Shelby County School district, believes this was all a “miscommunication.” Stout says the two Black journalists were never told they couldn’t read passages from their book. She also said no limits were set with regard to topics they wanted to discuss.
“Memphis-Shelby County Schools did not send any messaging that said the authors could not read an excerpt from the book. Memphis-Shelby County Schools also did not send any messaging that said the authors could not discuss systematic racism or topics related to the death of George Floyd,” Stout stated.
She also clarified that the district was “saddened and disappointed” after learning that Samuels and Olorunnipa “were given misinformation that was said to have come from us.”