A Georgia Southern student who blasted a Latina author during a campus appearance asked the woman the purpose of her visit. Later that night, students burned the author’s book to protest its discussion of white privilege. This week, faculty are attempting to explain the purpose of the author’s visit, as well as the vile history of book burning by the Nazis, as shown in this historic news photo. These youngsters, members of the Hitler Youth, are burning books condemned as Jewish-Marxist in Salzburg, Austria, on April 30, 1938. 
Photo: AP Photo
Photo: AP Photo

Georgia Southern incident: Do students go to college to read books or burn them? 

A group of white students at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro burned a book Wednesday night by a visiting Latina author and then assailed her on social media, igniting a firestorm that shows no sign of dying down. 

The burning of “Make Your Home Among Strangers” is offensive and indefensible. It’s also inexplicable given that Jennine Capó Crucet’s acclaimed 2015 novel about a first generation Cuban-American finding her place on a predominantly white campus offers universal themes that should resonate with students.

Instead, during Crucet’s appearance on campus, a student criticized the author over her comments on white privilege and asked why she was even at Georgia Southern. A freshman later recorded a group gleefully burning Crucet’s book in a campus grill. You can see the video here on AJC.com.

I’m puzzled why the student attacked Crucet, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska, for coming to Georgia Southern since the university invited her. Crucet’s book is used in the college's First Year Experience program designed to acclimate freshmen to the community.

Yet, the young woman stood up and asked: 

I noticed that you made a lot of generalizations about the majority of white people being privileged. What makes you believe that it’s okay to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught. I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.

Faculty at Georgia Southern are trying to explain the purpose, including this statement from the Department of Writing and Linguistics:

Her book, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” depicts a young Latina woman’s challenges in navigating the world of higher education at a majority-white, selective college. The barriers that minority students face at majority-white colleges and universities are well documented. 

The book was featured in First Year Experience classes. Last night’s discussion with the author devolved into accusations of her demonstrating racism against white people. Some students burned copies of Crucet’s book on campus. We assert that destructive and threatening acts do not reflect the values of Georgia Southern University.

Our department values stories and how they reflect parts of the human experience. We also value discussion and debate of important issues from all sides and perspectives. We regret that Crucet’s experience in Statesboro ended as it did. We call on students to remain civil in disagreement, even on difficult issues, and to make Georgia Southern University a place that we all can feel proud to represent.

In a statement to the George-Anne, the Georgia Southern student newspaper, the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Executive Board wrote:

On behalf of the WGSS Program and it supporters, we apologize to you, Jennine Capó Crucet, that this was your experience on our campus. We value and welcome the work you do and support immigrants and migrants of all kinds and we work alongside you to dismantle white supremacy. The actions of these students have brought much shame on our university community.

Both the Georgia Southern student government and the history department are organizing events this week in response to the book burning. 

The Student Government Association is hosting an open forum on Wednesday in which Georgia Southern President Kyle Marrero is expected to attend.

(Marrero has been criticized for a listless initial email about the book burning, in which he said, “… book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”

As the George-Anne reported about Tuesday’s planned session by history professors: 

Corinna Zeltsman, assistant professor of history, one of the key organizers of the event, said that the event was designed to help students understand the magnitude of book-burning. “We organized this teach-in event to help students understand book burning as a historical phenomenon that has occurred in different times and places around the world, often in association with climates of censorship, intolerance and violence,” she said. “The circumstances surrounding the book burning that took place on campus are unique to our particular time and place.”

One of the strongest responses to the book burning – which has prompted a lot of parents on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page to say they’re less likely now to consider Georgia Southern for their kids – came from College of Education faculty member John Weaver.

In a letter to the George-Anne, Weaver wrote:

I am sitting in my study surrounded by 3000 books that I have purchased and read as an undergraduate, graduate student, and professor for the last 25 years. They have become my companions through my life. I am also looking at my Marine Corps boot camp recruit photo book. I had to sacrifice greatly in order to partake in the educational process of this country. It is a price I would pay again as long as I can read as much as time will allot me.

It was with great dismay that I learned that a group of students thought it would be a good idea to burn copies of a book just because they disagreed with the author. It was not a good idea. It was an immature and ignorant thing to do. The history of books is not one free of strife and happy endings, but apparently and tragically this history has been forgotten. Many people have died so we can enjoy the privilege to read as much as we like and what we like, even hated-filled, maliciously misinformed books. Slaves in this nation risked their own lives just to learn how to read, Protestants in Europe lost their lives because they wanted to read the Bible in their own language, and many other groups throughout the world risk their lives to read today as Georgia Southern University experiences this embarrassing moment. 

It is my hope intellectuals and scholars of this institution of higher learning will find their voices and express their disappointment in such an anti-intellectual act. I hope the vast majority of students will condemn any book burning and as a sign of resistance pick a book up and read it intently and passionately. I hope administrators will also find the courage to speak out against such a senseless act. Silence will only defeat our purpose as educators and embolden ignorance.

I have praised the college journalists already on AJC Get Schooled Facebook, but again would like to note that McClain Baxley and Sarah Smith did a great job breaking the original story. See their work here. (Most of the links above will also take you to student work.)

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.