STATESBORO, Ga. — Students at Georgia Southern University burned the books of a Cuban-American author on a grill following a lecture in which she argued with participants about white privilege and diversity.
Jennine Capó Crucet visited the campus in Statesboro on Wednesday to discuss her 2015 novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers,” which students were assigned to read for their First Year Experience course.
Multiple videos on social media show students gathered around a grill burning copies of Capó Crucet’s novel and laughing.
“This is where we are, America,” Capó Crucet tweeted Wednesday following the incident.
One of the most infamous book burnings in history took place in May 1933 when German citizens burned the books of Jewish authors to “remove ‘Jewish influence” from German institutions, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.
Author says interaction with student was hostile
Capó Crucet’s novel examines a Cuban-American girl who is caught between two worlds, her life as a first-generation minority student at an elite university and her family in Miami, which is dealing with immigration issues. “I was asked in advance to give a talk on issues concerning diversity and the college experience, one that expanded on the themes of my novel,” Capó Crucet said in a statement Friday.
During the Q&A portion of her presentation, she says a white student questioned whether she had the authority to address issues of race and white privilege on campus.
GSU’s student newspaper, The George-Anne, reported that the student accused Capó Crucet of generalizing 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,” the student said, according to the newspaper.
The author responded: “I came here because I was invited and I talked about white privilege because it’s a real thing that you are actually benefiting from right now in even asking this question,” according to the report.
“I answered the question with the same response that I cite in the essay and mentioned out loud that this moment felt like déjà vu,” she said.
GSU freshman Chloe Johnsen told CNN students started shouting and yelling in favor of and against the student’s comment, with some yelling “Trump 2020” and others saying the author was right.
Capó Crucet described the interaction as hostile, surreal and strange. She says students began shouting back and forth, but she asked faculty to find the student who asked the initial question and other “similarly upset students” because “a compassionate and continuing conversation needed to occur.”
“We weren’t going to answer these questions in one night of discussion,” Capó Crucet said.
Later that night, though, Capó Crucet said she had to change hotels because students had gathered outside of her original hotel and she saw videos on social media of students burning her books.
“Nothing close to the events at GSU has occurred during any of my previous campus visits,” she said, adding that she’s given similar presentations at schools like Stanford University.
Students protected by First Amendment, GSU spokeswoman says
GSU freshman JaQuaylon Taylor, who witnessed Wednesday night’s book burning, told CNN affiliate WJCL-TV he shot video of the incident.
“When I was shooting the video, I was saying this is crazy. This is wild. I didn’t expect this to happen at all. It’s just not the way that night was supposed to be,” Taylor said.
Jennifer Wise, the university’s spokeswoman, said in a statement GSU does not plan on taking any actions against the students involved in the incident and that book burning was within the students’ First Amendment rights. She did say, however, that “book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”
PEN America, a literature and human rights organization, released a statement on the book burning Friday. “It is deeply disturbing to see a group of students engaged in this kind of conduct,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech project. “This symbolic gesture aimed not just to reject or refute ideas but to obliterate the very paper on which they were written … It behooves the university to educate its students about why book burning is so inimical to open discourse and free expression.”
Russell Willerton, a professor and chairman of the school’s Department of Writing and Linguistics, released a statement on Facebook saying the department was “dismayed and disappointed by the uproar.”
“Last night’s discussion with the author devolved into accusations of her demonstrating racism against white people,” Willerton’s statement read. “We assert that destructive and threatening acts do not reflect the values of Georgia Southern University.”
Johnsen, the GSU freshman, told CNN she didn’t think the president’s statement was enough. “I don’t think that it’s going to change anyone’s mind. None of the people who burned the books got punished,” she said. “I think behavior like that and their actions and their beliefs are going to continue to exist.”