Journalists Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa, authors of “His Name Is George Floyd,” said they were “blindsided” by last-minute restrictions about discussing systemic racism during their book event at Whitehaven High School last month.
The week before the event, the authors said they were also told their book wouldn’t be distributed to students who attended the event.
“I was thinking about the great disservice that they’re giving these students who deserve better,” Samuels said. “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.”
The authors said they weren’t able to directly speak about the book’s themes and instead shared their own histories with the students. They believe the restrictions were put in place due to Tennessee laws restricting certain books in schools.
“This is just another one of those obstacles unfairly being placed in their paths through no fault of their own,” Samuels said.
A spokeswoman for Memphis-Shelby County schools said the district didn’t place restrictions on what the authors could talk about, adding that the situation was a “miscommunication.”
The event, attended by predominately-Black high school students, was put on by Christian Brothers University’s Memphis Reads, an organization that picks one book annually to engage residents in “issues that are relative to daily societal topics and themes.”
The authors said they worked with Justin Brooks, director of Memphis’ Christian Brothers University’s Center for Community Engagement, to put on the event. According to the authors, Brooks informed them of the restrictions, and they didn’t have direct communication with the school district.
Brooks told local outlets that Memphis Reads officials were “under the instruction of MSCS leadership when completing the formatting and regulations concerning the Age-Appropriate Materials Act.”
Noting that the incident was a miscommunication, the Memphis-Shelby County spokeswoman said the only issue regarding the event was providing the book to students due to state and district regulations that would require a lengthy review of the title before distribution.
“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,” the spokesperson said, noting that the district was “saddened and disappointed” to learn authors “were given misinformation that was said to have come from us.”