Community leader answers DeSantis book bans by opening library
Monday, April 24, 2023
Courtesy of LawannaGelzer.com
Lawanna Gelzer in a still from her 2022 campaign video for District 6 Orange County commissioner.
In Orange County, there's more than one way to get books about Black history into students’ hands.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis's administration is working to remove books and other media from classrooms and school libraries under the guise that they teach critical race theory, community leader Lawanna Gelzer has found a way to make all kinds of books available — but particularly those about Black life, Black history and by Black authors.
An Orlando activist who fights against systemic racism, Gelzer opened the Ms. Betty Lending Library on Feb. 18 — during Black History Month — with hundreds of books of all genres and for all ages. The library is housed at the Ms. Betty Resilience Hub Learning Center, which is named after Gelzer’s mother who donated her Parramore property to provide a learning space for the community.
“My mom ran a childcare facility for 45 years and always lent books to lending libraries. So it was just natural to keep her legacy going by doing this. It was our solution to a problem people just didn't comprehend,” Gelzer, 60, said in a phone interview.
She remembers growing up during desegregation with free access to all types of books and was instilled with a duty to fight for civil rights. The current book bans especially aimed at Black history worry her.
“You will not erase the history of the contribution of African-Americans,” she said. “You will not tell us what we can read or what we can know about our plight in America over 400 years. No one man has that power or control over anybody. You will not bring us back to plantation day, I will not be a slave where it is illegal to learn or read or be taught.”
As of March, Florida is second in the U.S. with the most banned books, with 565 documented, according to Pen America. Orange County Public Schools banned Gender Queer, Lawn Boy, Tricks and All Boys Aren’t Blue.
Gelzer, who ran unsuccessfully for Orange County commissioner several times, started the Ms. Betty Lending Library with $500 of her own money and then grew it with financial and book donations from family, friends and local businesses, including the Black-owned bookstore Dare Books in Longwood.
The lending library is her answer to attempts by the governor and Republican legislature to ban books about Black culture and history, LGBTQ stories and other topics that they deem inappropriate for children and teens. For instance, when the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which forbids teaching critical race theory at public K-12 schools, colleges and universities, went into effect last year, it banned teaching the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The 1619 Project", a massive New York Times initiative about how slavery is foundational to the creation of the United States.
However, federal courts, as recently as a month ago, blocked the Stop W.O.K.E. Act from being enforced. The state is fighting the injunction.
Meanwhile, books like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Beloved, are still being removed from schools in numerous counties throughout Florida, although these titles are available to OCPS students. According to PEN America, which published a report last year, 40 percent of banned books involve protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.
For Gelzer, the lending library is a way to keep Black history accessible to the entire community for students and adults who want to learn more.
“A lot of parents were concerned that Black history is only during Black History Month,” she said. “I’m looking for those books to be year round, not just in February.”