PEN America’s annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture will be delivered by MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the United States seemed caught in a reckoning with the legacies of slavery and racial inequity. Yet, the backlash to critical discussions of America’s history and the history of African Americans was swift, with President Trump introducing an Executive Order in September 2020 barring discussion of so-called ‘divisive-concepts’ in government trainings and other settings. Beginning in January 2021, state legislatures took up the charge, continuing the campaign against curricula and ideas labeled “critical race theory,” and The New York Times’ 1619 Project. In the years since, we have seen a dramatic rise in efforts to ban books, and particularly the very books that have long fought for a place on the shelf – books by African Americans and authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors and women. PEN America’s Banned in the USA report found that 40% of banned books in the 2021-2022 school year featured a protagonist or secondary character of color.
In the Festival’s keynote lecture, Coates will discuss this moment of attempts to erase African American history and black intellectual thought in the context of the broader attacks on free speech and free expression. He will explore the historically cyclical nature of these backlashes, the power structures fortified by the assault on the free exchange of ideas and thoughts, and identify the stakes of the curtailment of free expression. After the lecture, Coates will be interviewed by Professor David Blight (Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom; American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era; Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory) with an audience Q&A to follow.