'Stop SB 48' Doesn't Want California Students to Know About James Baldwin?

In the history of the world, gays and lesbians have always made important contributions to many different societies. One such person is James Baldwin, the American novelist, essayist, and social critic.

''I would place him very high among writers,'' Benjamin DeMott, professor of English at Amherst College, told the New York Times at the time of Baldwin's death in 1987, ''in part because his work showed a powerful commitment to the right values and had a profound impact for good on our culture.''

In California, a group called "Stop SB 48" wants to repeal a state law that allows students to learn about Baldwin and other important people in history who were gay.

In 1953, Baldwin received wide praise for his first novel that's now considered a classic, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which tells the story of a poor boy growing up in Harlem in the 1930s.

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"It is written with poetic intensity and great narrative skill," wrote a Harper's magazine critic about the book.

The Saturday Review praised it as "masterful," and the San Francisco Chronicle described Go Tell It on the Mountain as an important American novel that is "brutal, objective and compassionate."

The book has been ranked on numerous top 100 lists as one of the best English-language novels of the twentieth century.

Baldwin followed up that major effort with the novels Giovanni's Room and Another Country, which truthfully discussed homosexuality and caused a stir among his various critics.

Baldwin, however, was perhaps best well-known as an essayist who challenged the status quo in American society and took an active role in the 1960s civil rights movement.

Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time were three of his most influential collections of essays.

Henry Louis Gates, a prominent professor of English and African-American Literature, told the New York Times that Baldwin's death was ''a great loss not only for black people, but to the country as a whole, for which he served as a conscience.''

In July, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 48, also known as the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act, into law.

It revised an existing law that adds the LGBT community to a list of under-represented cultural and ethnic groups that are covered in textbooks and other instructional materials in schools.

Stop SB 48 wants to repeal FAIR through a ballot measure, and the group has now started a petition drive to get the initiative on the June, 2012, ballot.

In seeking the repeal of FAIR, Stop SB 48 is creating the same kind of coalition of religious groups and conservative think tanks that worked to get California voters to approve anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008.

Courage Campaign, Equality California, and other gay rights and social justice groups are undertaking a "decline to sign" effort to keep California voters from signing Stop SB 48's petition.

"They want kids to grow up thinking gay people have never contributed to society at all," Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs wrote in an email to his members.

Recently, gay rights activists have become concerned that if the petition drive is successful, the gay community will face a major political battle to prevent the repeal SB 48.

Every Wednesday, L.A. Weekly is highlighting those important gays and lesbians in history -- the same people Stop SB 48 doesn't want California students to know about.

Reilly T. Bates contributed to this post.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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