Disney’s anti-racism film Ruby Bridges is the subject of a complaint brought by a Florida parent who claims the movie is not appropriate for second-graders, because it might teach them that “white people hate Black people”.
The film, which tells the story of a six-year-old girl who integrated New Orleans schools in the 1960s, has been a staple of school curriculums during Black History Month in the state’s Tampa-area county of Pinellas.
The complaint over the film about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate into a white school, comes as parents across Florida have been granted greater powers over what their children are shown and taught in classrooms, including being given advance warning over “controversial” topics.
It was reported last week that the principal of a school in Tallahassee, Florida, had been pressured to resign after an image of Michelangelo’s David, which sits in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, was shown to a sixth-grade art class.
Earlier this year, a controversy erupted over Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, which includes a father-daughter rape scene, after a parent complained. Pinellas school officials withdrew the book and directed schools to “err on the side of caution” when selecting literature for students.
Emily Conklin, the North Shore elementary school parent who filed the instructional and media material objection to Ruby Bridges, cited several racial slurs in the film, including a scene where adults scream, “I’m going to hang you!”
The issue has been rumbling since early March, when Conklin said she would not allow her child to watch the film after the North Shore school sent out permission slips to parents. Two families opted to take their children out before a teacher showed the film to about 60 second-graders on 2 March.
In a formal complaint on 6 March, Conklin said the use of racist slurs and scenes of white people threatening Ruby as she entered a school could result in students learning that white people hate Black people. She said that the film was more appropriate for an eighth-grade American history class but not for children in the second grade.
School officials responded by suspending further showings of the film this year until a review committee had assessed “the challenged material”. That prompted an outcry from a local group representing the interests of Black children.
“Many from historically marginalized communities are asking whether this so-called integrated education system in Pinellas county can even serve the diverse community fairly and equitably,” wrote Ric Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black students, in a letter obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Davis said the political climate in Florida had educators second-guessing themselves about what materials to use in classes. He said: “The [Pinellas] district’s leadership appears to fear the potential consequences of not acting in the way they have. He added he had “serious questions” about the administrators’ judgment.
The former St Petersburg police chief and deputy mayor Goliath Davis also criticized the move to suspend Ruby Bridges showings. In a column published by the Weekly Challenger, he said that in both the Morrison and Bridges cases, the material had been removed on the basis of a single complaint.
“Think about it. A six-year-old girl can go to school every day with armed guards, but second-graders can’t learn about it?” Davis said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Disney produced the made-for-TV Ruby Bridges movie, based on the experiences of the eponymous author at William Frantz elementary school in New Orleans, in 1998.
Bridges told the Florida Times-Union after it was broadcast: “I think it’s important to look at this film to see what a six-year-old child had to go through, what a family went through just to be able to have the same privileges as everyone else. I think ideally that people will think about that and do everything they can not to pass prejudice on to their children.”
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Columbia University and UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw warned that an escalation in the battle over the teaching of racial history in Florida and elsewhere was “the tip of the iceberg” in rightwing efforts to reverse civil rights progress.
“The ban on anti-racism is so profound, that even the story of a kindergarten or first grade integrating an all-white school runs counter to [the new laws],” she said, referring to Bridges’ memoir.
On Monday, the Florida Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the Ruby Bridges issue illustrated the state’s attempts to “erase history”.
“How can it be that a black child once needed police escorts to attend class,” Wasserman Schultz wrote in a tweet, “yet students today must be shielded from this truth?”
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