To be clear from the very start, two points. Judi Honoré, the owner of Shakespeare Books & Antiques in Ashland, Oregon, has every right to display anything she chooses in the window of, or for that matter anywhere in, her store. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, also located in Ashland, Oregon, has every right as an organization to express its institutional opinion about events locally or nationally as it sees fit, and to align its business practices accordingly.
These rights, however, came into conflict this summer, when a window display of banned books at Shakespeare Books & Antiques, which has been in place (albeit with rotating inventory) for the past several years, was perceived by members of the OSF company as making a racial commentary about a current OSF production. Specifically, the origin of the dispute arose from the juxtaposition of an edition of Little Black Sambo to a collection of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, while OSF was producing The Wiz, the retelling of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast.
The controversy has extended throughout the summer, and continues to simmer. OSF is still developing plans for a town hall meeting intended to allow members of the community to share their opinions of what has emerged from expressions of discomfort over the window display and its significant aftermath. But before that happens, on Monday October 31, Shakespeare Books & Antiques will close. So how did this come to pass, that ideals of social consciousness and free speech became seemingly oppositional positions?
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For those unfamiliar with the children’s story Little Black Sambo, it recounts a simple, non-realistic tale of a child who is sequentially threatened by a group of tigers into parting with all of his clothes, then driven up a tree, after which the tigers fall to squabbling and end up chasing one another by their tails at the base of the tree until they somehow melt into butter, which is then brought home by the child and used by his mother to make pancakes for the family. The book, by Helen Bannerman, first appeared in 1899 in England, and has been republished and retold in numerous editions ever since.
While the original preface stated that it was written by “an English lady in India, where black children abound and tigers are everyday affairs,” some versions employ illustrations more evocative of Africa, while others conflate the two. The depiction of Bannerman’s little boy and his family has also varied widely, from relatively realistic to grossly stereotypical, with some editions employing iconography more akin to those often seen in the early 20th century American South, as also seen in a 1935 animated short based on the story.
Within decades of its appearance, LBS, while one of the relatively few children’s books with a black protagonist, was increasingly perceived as racist. Langston Hughes cited the book as being of the “pickanninny variety,” writing that the name “Sambo” was “amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.” Even after LBS began to be removed (and banned) from schools and libraries, the name was taken up by a chain of US restaurants, started in California in 1957 as their brand, growing to more than 1,100 outlets by the 1970s before collapsing (after an attempted rebranding) in the 80s.
New editions of LBS have continued to emerge, with some making efforts to address the racial portrayals, particularly with regards to the illustrations, including some which have sought to more accurately bring accuracy to the setting of India. But the name remains a racial slur in the minds of many people, as it already was when the book was first published.
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The context for the display in the Shakespeare Books & Antiques (SBA) window is provided by two signs. The first, shown within a frame in the display itself, reads:
BOOKS REFLECTING THE HISTORY OF RACISM IN THE UNITED STATES
Our position is that these books should still be available to read during these critical time [sic]. As Scott Parker-Anderson so eloquently wrote for the Library of Congress, “The truth about the past can make people uncomfortable, but it does not change the truth. There were slaves, they were treated horribly, and called horrible names. Those are the facts, that cannot be changed. REMEMBER, those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
The second sign, affixed to the window, reads:
BANNED BY SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, SOMETIME
We believe attempts to censor ideas to which we gave access, whether in books, magazines, plays, works of art, television, movies or songs are not simply isolated instances of harassment by diverse special interest groups. Rather, they are a part of a growing pattern of increasing intolerance which is changing the fabric of America. Censorship cannot eliminate evil, it can only kill freedom. We believe Americans have the right to buy, stores have the right to sell, and authors have the right to publish constitutionally protected material.
In a photo of the SBA window dating from the start of the dispute, two LBS books can be seen: one an edition of the original story, the second an apparent sequel by a wholly different author and illustrator, Little Black Sambo and the Monkey People. It is the former which is placed adjacent to the Oz books and a framed list of the many Oz titles. Also visible, but only by their spines, are Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a collection of the Uncle Remus stories.
Describing other parts of the display, Honoré, in an interview, said, “The Color Purple may have been there at the time, but I’m really not sure.” She went on to list the aforementioned books, as well as two copies of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird.
The placement and proximity of LBS and the Oz books first came to light when four ASF company members, including actors from The Wiz company, which at the time was still in rehearsal, went to speak with Honoré in June. The accounts of the conversation given by Honoré and Ashley Kelley, one of the actors present, are fairly similar.
In Honoré’s description:
Middle of July, four actors were outside looking in my window. I didn’t know they were actors, they were just four black people. I went outside like I usually do and said, ‘Can I explain to you why any of these books are banned?’ and they said, ‘We’re actors in a play called The Wiz, which is playing here, and it’s an all-black cast and we object to the fact that you have Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Black Sambo, Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, these books right next to the Wizard of Oz book. Why do you have them that way? What kind of message are you trying to send?’
I said, ‘I’m not trying to send any message, they’re all just banned books. They said, ‘Well, we feel you’re trying to send some kind of a message,’ but I still don’t know to this day what kind of message I was supposed to be sending. I honestly don’t. But they saw me sending some horrible message by having them in that order. So I said, ‘Why don’t you come in and what we’ll do together is we’ll move them. If you’re that offended and you feel bad about it, we’ll move them together.’
Honoré notes that in moving the books, they were never removed from the window, but merely relocated away from the Oz books.
Via e-mail, Kelley described the encounter with Honoré as follows:
We went inside to talk to Ms. Honoré and we proceeded to have a peaceful conversation. We asked her what the inspiration was for the display and she began explaining the history of the books, not understanding what we meant. I told her specifically that I’m sure it wasn’t intentional but unfortunately the display as it stands is making negative commentary about the people in her community. Still not understanding, I explained to her that The Wiz was happening across the street which is the African American version of The Wizard of Oz.
She claimed she didn’t know there was such a version or that OSF was doing it. I told her that THAT was why we are offended by the display, the placement of these books that exploited African Americans next to the entire Wizard of Oz collection. I stressed again that I didn’t believe it was intentional but that unfortunately whether she knew or not it was making a statement. She kept defending why she had the black books to us and I in turn responded by telling her it wasn’t about the fact that she had those books and that I understand why she has them in the first place. My only issue was that they were next to all the Oz books…that’s all.
She finally understood and asked me what to do. Then SHE came up with an idea to move the books from the window and asked us if we would like to help. We said yes, walked inside with her and helped her move the books elsewhere. After that we stood with her for a while talking about her background and had a very pleasant conversation. We introduced ourselves. I thanked her for listening and for talking to us. We hugged and left her store.
After this, I sent an email to my cast to tell them about the positive experience I had with Ms. Honoré and that it was a very proud moment especially with all the horrible things happening with people of color all over the country and even in our town.”
* * *
If that had been the end of the issue, with hugs, it would indeed stand as a positive moment for all concerned. But things quickly became complicated.
Ashley Kelley expressed surprise as to the fallout, writing:
It was brought to my attention weeks later that the display had been put back and that Ms. Honoré was upset with me for telling people what happened at OSF…which I didn’t understand because the email was a positive representation of her and the bookstore because we were able to peacefully talk and come to a solution. Then all of a sudden there were SO many people involved and the story seemed to shift to “we asked her to remove the books from the store.” which was NOT the conversation at ALL.
I was honestly very disappointed in how such a positive moment turned sour based off of lack of communication it seems. I was under the impression that everything was handled after my initial encounter with her. Little did I know there were more conversations, other emails, letters, etc. that I had no involvement in.
Claudia Alick, the community producer at OSF, who also chairs the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Planning Council, said in an interview that after learning of the encounter, she had discussed the conversation at the bookstore between the company members (three of whom were actors and one staff member, per OSF’s press office) and Honoré in a “healthy conversation” with Cynthia Rider, OSF’s executive director, who indicated that she wanted to speak with Honoré. Alick said she then went home to prepare an agenda for that conversation.
That same day, Rider called Honoré, asking to meet and discuss what had occurred. Honoré says that Rider said, “I’d like to discuss with you your banned book — she didn’t say banned book, she said your public window display — and protecting my staff. That was her exact language.” Honoré then describes her decision not to wait for a meeting with Rider at the store, and instead closing the shop and heading straight to OSF to ask for an immediate meeting with Rider. She ultimately met with Rider and with general manager Ted DeLong in an impromptu session. Alick had already left the OSF campus.
Julie Cortez, communications manager of OSF, relating Rider’s impression of the meeting, wrote that, “While Cynthia says Judi seemed upset when she arrived, by the end of the meeting their relationship seemed cordial.” Honoré describes the meeting as more problematic, saying, “I knew I was in deep trouble when Ted DeLong [OSF’s general manager, who also attended] said he thought Huck Finn was a horrible book.” Honoré says she was asked to remove the books from the window.
Further describing the meeting, Honoré recalled, “I said, ‘If you have a group of students and they’re really dumb and you keep telling them they’re really smart they will become smart. Vice versa if you have a group of students who are really smart, you keep telling them they’re dumb they will become dumb. If you have a sweet little town like Ashland and you keep calling us racist, it will become racist. I think the positions you guys have been taking have been incorrect.’ I don’t think they appreciated that much.”
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Some may recall that Ashland and Oregon Shakespeare Festival were in the news this summer for another racially based incident, which was widely shared on social media and subsequently reported in mainstream media outlets. In that case, a man verbally attacked a black actor in the OSF company as she walked down the street, shouting, “It’s still an Oregon law. I could kill a black person and be out of jail in a day and a half. The KKK is still alive here.”
News reports indicated that the man who threatened the actress was likely a local homeless man who was known to the Ashland Police for other aggressive actions. The police determined, according to a report in the Mail Tribune, that “no crime had been committed,” even as they were “decrying this hateful speech.”
Asked about that incident, vis a vis the conversations over her window, Honoré was dismissive, saying, “One black actress was apparently yelled at by our town schizophrenic who said horrible things, but he yells at everybody, including me. If I don’t give him a dollar, he’ll say something like, ‘I’m going to kill you.’” She went on to volunteer, “They said the police officers were picking them up for no reason whatsoever, and they had to ride around in a car with a white person or they felt like they’d be targeted and get picked up. None of that is true. I mean I know our little sweet town and that doesn’t seem to happen here. And then they also said that if they go into a store and they’re asked more than once, ‘Can I help you,’ they’re being targeted for shoplifting.”
However, that incident happened in late June, subsequent to the meeting between Rider and Honoré, but before the dispute between SBA and OSF became widely known.
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Immediately following the meeting between Honoré and Rider, Honoré says she went back to her store, upset at learning about the e-mail that was circulated and Rider’s original request to come to the bookstore and discuss the display. So she returned LBS to its original location in the window.
“Honestly, I felt like I was either sandbagged, slapped in the face or backstabbed, when they went back to OSF after I felt I had done something really nice for them. After I had temporarily moved it, then I put it back where it was. But that was for maybe a day, and then I thought better of it and I moved them way to the end again.”
Claudia Alick subsequently visited the store and had her own conversation with Honoré, who Alick says recounted her studies in college (Honoré attended UC Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s, where she wrote her thesis on sexism and racism in textbooks) and repeatedly protested, “I am not a racist.”
Alick says that after listening to Honoré for ten minutes, she interjected, “I never said you were a racist. Nobody said you were a racist. Those words haven’t come out of anybody’s mouth. I just wanted to know what was the decision made, because I think that I might have a different understanding of that decision, because you put the display back and I’m confused by that. And so then there was another ten minutes where she finally admitted that she was pissed and those were her words. She was pissed at the actors for – and in her words it was for – ‘sending nasty e-mails about me.’”
In a separate interview, OSF artistic director Bill Rauch spoke to the issue of leveling charges of racism at anyone:
[LBS] is a much beloved story for many, many people, especially older people who either had it read to them by their parents or read it to their own children. That’s come up again and again and again. Some of the emotion people have felt has been that by OSF saying, ‘We do not support the juxtaposition of those original racial caricature drawings on the cover of that book being juxtaposed next to The Wizard of Oz,’ they felt that we were personally attacking a story that was a beloved part of their childhood and therefore somehow calling them racist for liking that story.
Alick says she informed Honoré that, “It’s interesting that you said those e-mails were nasty. I can share with you that it was just them sharing their own personal experience and they didn’t say anything that was negative or nasty about anyone. It was actually pretty generous and kind framing and language that was used to describe what happened.”
According to Alick, after further conversation with Honoré about how the display might prove troubling not just to artists but to any persons of color walking down the street, Honoré asked, “What do you want us to do?” Alick says she responded, “No, we’re not going to tell you what to do. I just wanted to get clarity about what you were doing. You get to decide what you’re going to do.”
Alick says she was aware of other OSF staff members having one-on-one discussions with Honoré, emphasizing that they were private, personal communications. But Alick says that, “[Honoré] started coming to the festival, and stopping people of color and – I’m going to use the word harassment – harassing them, saying ‘Aren’t you in The Wiz? Well this, this and this.’ She did the same thing to me, where she stopped me on the street and had just a really kind of gross exchange with me that wasn’t kind, that was so problematic. And so organizationally, people of color asked essentially, ‘Hey, would you please do something?’ We’re like, ‘Well, the only thing we can do is let her know privately we won’t be doing business with you. We won’t be investing in your services in the future because you’re treating our company members this way.’ It wasn’t a comment on her public display. It was a comment on her direct behavior with our company members.” She later added, “We didn’t do anything public.”
Honoré recounts writing a letter to Rider on July 18, in which she set out the events regarding the window display and all that had transpired much as described here, adding her account of a positive conversation with another OSF actor of color regarding the display, which had prompted her decision to once again shift the Sambo book away from the Oz books. She also expresses deep upset with all that has occurred, including being called a racist by someone she describes as an OSF actor. She concluded the letter by writing, “In my opinion, Ashland, and this includes our residents and our police department, are profoundly inclusive and make every effort to reach out to everyone, as are the merchants of this very special small town.”
* * *
On July 26, Rider sent the following letter to Honoré:
I am in receipt of your letter of July 18 describing your recent experiences with OSF staff and actors regarding your display window.
For myself, my colleagues in senior management, and those most deeply involved in the work of expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion here at OSF and in Ashland, the most important facts, which you allude to in your letter, are as follows:
- You received feedback from various OSF staff members, who are by definition your fellow community members, that your window display that included blackface caricatures was hurtful and offensive due to their racist origins.
- You removed the display.
- You heard reports that emails were circulating at OSF regarding this chain of events, and decided to reinstall the display.
Through these events, you have demonstrated a distinct lack of empathy for the experiences of the people of color who brought this matter to your attention and their reactions to your display, and reinstating the display caused continued pain to those individuals and by extension to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Because of this, I am by this letter informing you that Artistic Director Bill Rauch and I have given instruction to our staff not to patronize Shakespeare Books & Antiques for any Festival-related goods or services until further notice.
* * *
On August 4, the dispute between Honoré and OSF went fully public, in an article in the Daily Tidings (reprinted the following day in the Mail Tribune), resulting from Honoré sharing Rider’s letter with the paper. This marks the first time the word “boycott” appears to have been used in connection with the situation. The article also mischaracterizes Rider’s letter as a “ban on OSF staff purchasing items from the store,” instead of the actual language, which only proscribed staff from making purchases on behalf of OSF at the store. This occurred despite the article later quoting a letter to the editor from Rider and OSF artistic director Bill Rauch clarifying that they had not called for a boycott. But that became the prevalent narrative for the ensuing weeks.
While various letters to the editor played the dispute out in the local papers, as people took sides, the next major account of the situation came slightly less than four weeks later, when on August 30, the Daily Tidings reported that Honoré had decided to close her store, giving two months notice to her landlord for a closing on October 31. Honoré attributed the closing to a significant drop in business in the month of August, as well as the stress of responding to the conflict that had arisen with OSF. She said that in contrast to typical summer months, when her business averaged $20,000, her first 12 days of August yielded on $2,355 in sales and that on August 22, her total sales were $59.
In that article, the reporter John Darling included a statement from OSF, quoting it as follows,
If Judi is seeing a reduction in her business, that is either occurring for unrelated reasons or due to her decision to go public in the media and in her store windows,” the email said. “Given that OSF has only made one or two small purchases for Festival use at Shakespeare Books & Antiques over the years, the decision … was not about causing Judi financial hardship, but about communicating to our colleagues of color that we believe them and stand with them.
While Honoré in an interview described a seemingly dictatorial rule by the leadership of OSF over its staff (“She tells them what to do over there apparently and they do it,” Honoré said, referring to Rider), she was not able to provide any evidence that the OSF staff had been ordered away from her store for personal purchases. She affirmed that OSF had not revealed anything publicly about its communications with her, saying “They didn’t go public, I went public, and they’re calling the conversation I had with them a private conversation. Nobody told me that it was private.”
OSF shared with Arts Integrity a short memo they had given to “front line staff” to help answer questions from patrons about the situation, but the theatre’s first sustained public communication to the community, signed by Bill Rauch, headed, “A response to the ‘bookstore story,’” wasn’t issued until September 2.
It read, in part:
OSF has never sought publicity or media attention for its ongoing discussions with Judi about her window display. We intended privacy for all of our communications, written and verbal, prior to Judi reaching out to the Ashland Daily Tidings (a publication for which Judi’s husband is a columnist). I would like to emphasize that not once has anyone at OSF called for a public boycott of Judi’s bookstore. Our employees are, of course, always free to shop anywhere for their personal purchases, and before today we had never brought up this subject in any communications with our patrons or membership.
I stand by our decision not to do business with a person who has treated members of our company and community with disrespect. Since Judi went public about OSF’s decision, we’ve received numerous reports from staff and patrons about problematic and insensitive interactions in and outside of her store and on the OSF campus. Our attempts to continue the dialogue with her—with a mediator, if she would prefer—have gone unanswered.
Separately, Honoré said that she had asked Rider to visit the bookstore – Rider’s original intent in requesting a meeting with Honoré – but that Rider declined.
In the next to last paragraph of his community letter, Rauch wrote:
Free speech is necessary, but not all speech is neutral; all language, images and symbols are not equal. The fact that speech can be damaging must be acknowledged. As an institution and as individuals, how we use our right of free speech is a moral choice. It is not neutral to propound messages that deepen the isolation and oppression experienced by members of groups that have been historically marginalized. Propagating images that were historically stigmatizing to black people and that some people continue to experience as hurtful and stigmatizing is not a neutral act. In my view, we grow most when we listen with empathy and curiosity to all those who are different from us about their own life experiences.
* * *
It’s worth recalling Ashley Kelley’s comment about what has transpired in Ashland, “I was honestly very disappointed in how such a positive moment turned sour based off of lack of communication it seems.” In conversation and written material, both Honoré and the OSF leadership expressed the feeling that each “side” was not listening to or understanding the other. That is the very definition of a lack of communication.
The situation escalated not because of the conversation between the four company members and Honoré, but only when Rider asked to arrange to meet with Honoré, who then opted to precipitate an immediate conversation. Rider perceived that meeting as having begun in conflict but concluding well, however Honoré’s takeaway was both frustration with Rider (who she called “elitist”) and anger that the conversation about the window display had gone beyond herself and the four actors, causing her to reverse the results of that meeting.
While the original conversation between Honoré and the four company members, and the meeting between Honoré and Rider, occurred first, the late July exchange of letters between Honoré and Rider occurred after the incident in which a black actor at OSF was verbally abused. An atmosphere of concern over the treatment of people of color in Ashland had been heightened as the bookstore dispute played out over a number of weeks. As in all cases, a specific event shouldn’t be the pretext for diminishing the rights of others, but the bookstore situation was thrown into sharper relief by the intervening incident.
Bill Rauch noted, “I do think that for members of our community who feel Ashland is such a progressive community, that there can be no racism in our town, that if a person of color says they’ve experienced racism in our town that it’s the problem of the person of color, that they’re oversenstitive, that they’re being overly cautious and that the racism is not real. I think the juxtaposition of these things has triggered a lot in terms of the community response as well.”
Honoré cites Rider’s letter of July 26 as having prompted the precipitous drop in her business, claiming that other internal e-mails, which she could not produce, went beyond Rider’s instruction that staff should not do business with Shakespeare Books and Antiques. However, when she by her own admission went to the press for the story that first appeared on August 4, there was no mention of any impact on her business, only her unhappiness over what she characterized as a call to boycott her store.
Reading Rider’s letter carefully, one could argue that the language about ceasing to do business with SBA might have been somewhat differently structured. If one doesn’t read the entirety of this closing phrase – “I have given instruction to our staff not to patronize Shakespeare Books & Antiques for any Festival related goods or services until further notice” – one might only take away “given instruction to our staff not to patronize.” A statement affirming staff members’ own unfettered right to patronize the store would have been useful.
But regardless of how the letter was read, it was internal to OSF, yet Honoré says it resulted in a roughly 85% drop in business. If the staff of OSF was Honoré’s overwhelming customer base, then regardless of whether one agrees with the request to alter the display, Honoré’s choices influenced the purchasing decisions of her customers. In seeing the situation as one of social consciousness and sensitivity, OSF was well within its rights ito decide what vendors it chose to do business with, and that wasn’t a secret within the organization.
Honoré claims that in her one meeting with Rider, she was told, “Take the books out of your window or we’re going to boycott your store.” Rider denies having made such a statement. Asked whether her communication regarding OSF-related purchases wasn’t in fact an implicit message to the OSF community to not patronize the bookstore, Rider said, “That certainly wasn’t my intention.”
Was OSF advocating censorship, which presumably they would fight were such an effort directed at their own creative work? Given that they had no control over Honoré’s store, it’s hard to accept that they were, especially since the conversation only was about the placement of the books, not over whether Honoré should carry them at all. OSF was advocating to Honoré, according to their institutional imperatives and as a part of the Ashland community, sensitivity to members of the OSF company – both full time staff and guest artists – that escalated over a communications impasse. Rider observed, “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want and nobody can tell you they’re upset about it.”
Because so many of the interactions within this dispute were person to person, it is difficult to pin down many absolutes, especially since the different parties offer differing impressions of the same event. In the fraught communications, it’s unfortunate that one possible rapprochement doesn’t appear to have been discussed. Might it have been possible for SBA and OSF to collaborate on further contextualizing the window display, so that it was clear the presence of LBS (and books like the Uncle Remus stories) was not to advance racially negative text or imagery? While Honoré absolutely has the right to display any books as she wishes, and there is no question that the books she displayed have all been officially censored at one time (or many times), a store window is not a museum or school, where history and education about featured items would usually be more fully explained.
While Shakespeare Books & Antiques will close on Monday, Honoré said that she does plan to reopen, after resting up from the stress of the past few months and getting a new business of hers, a furniture store, fully up and running. Saying that she has three times as many books warehoused as she was able to display in the shop that’s closing, she said she’d be back in a larger space. She felt some distance would put an end to the many people who were coming into her store to discuss the dispute with OSF, but not making purchases, noting that business only began to pick up when she announced she was closing.
As for further dialogue in Ashland through a town hall, which at one point was considered for Saturday, October 29, Julie Cortez of OSF said in an e-mail, “We are in discussion with the members of SOEDI (Southern Oregon Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative) about the best date to hold this community conversation, and we will keep people informed of what plans are made.” It’s too bad that the community still has to wait to process this situation together, openly, but hopefully they’ll get there soon in a way that helps everyone involved, directly or as observers, to fully appreciate and respect what’s being said and shown and read, on stage and off.