Baltimore Book Festival cancels Rachel Dolezal appearance after backlash

Amid a community backlash, the Baltimore Book Festival canceled the planned appearance of controversial author Rachel Dolezal, who resigned from her job with the NAACP after it was revealed that she was a white woman representing herself as black.

The Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which organizes the festival, announced Dolezal’s removal from the lineup Tuesday in an unsigned statement.

Dolezal had been slated to read from her autobiography, “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World,” at the September festival.

“A top priority of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts is to listen to our constituents,” the statement said, “and after hearing from a cross-section of opinions on having Rachel Dolezal participate in this year’s festival, we had to consider how her appearance may affect both the audience and the other extraordinary authors we have planned for the Baltimore Book Festival. For that reason, we believe it would be appropriate to remove Ms. Dolezal from the festival line up.”

Executive director Bill Gilmore said the decision was made during a BOPA staff meeting Tuesday. He declined to explain the circumstances under which Dolezal initially was invited to participate in the festival.

It’s unusual for the Book Festival, which has presented more than 3,000 authors over two decades, to court controversy. Now in its 22nd year, the festival has a reputation as a family affair in which presentations by a sprinkling of national authors and a larger slate of local ones are interspersed with cooking demonstrations and encounters with adoptable pets.

When it was announced last week that Dolezal would be a presenting author for the 2017 festival held on Sept. 22-24, it touched off an immediate response. An online petition that garnered more than 100 signatures as of Tuesday morning urged BOPA to rescind the invitation, which some saw as racially insensitive.

Neither Dolezal nor her publisher responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Kimberly Mooney, a Baltimore resident and middle-school Spanish teacher, started the online petition because she thought that inviting Dolezal to speak ignored Baltimore’s recent history of racial strife.

“I saw it as a bad publicity stunt that was really hurtful to a community that has already suffered enough,” she said.

She was elated at the organization’s decision Tuesday.

“I think it’s wonderful that they listened to the community and made the right decision,” said Mooney, who is white. “Unfortunately, they didn’t have the foresight to realize that it was a poor decision in the first place, but I’m glad they changed course.”

When it was revealed in 2015 that Dolezal, then the head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP, had white parents, it touched off a national conversation about race. At the time, Dolezal said that she “identified as black.” Critics accused her of cultural appropriation, of reaping the benefits of belonging to an oppressed minority group without having to undergo the drawbacks. She later resigned from her job with the NAACP.

(Earlier this year, Dolezal legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, a West African term for “gift from the Gods.” But the name on her book jacket is still Rachel Dolezal, which she has said she’ll continue using as her public persona.)

Karsonya Wise Whitehead, an author who has appeared previously at the Baltimore Book Festival, thinks the annual celebration is the wrong platform for presenting writers who tackle hot-button topics. Whitehead would have supported Dolezal’s appearance on a college campus with its typical freewheeling give-and-take. But she said that by making Dolezal one of its featured authors, the Book Festival appeared to be endorsing her views.

“The Baltimore Book Festival has a very hometown feeling to it,” said Whitehead, who is black. “But she is not one of us. She is someone who has mocked black culture and who has cashed in on it and misrepresented it. And still, she has a book deal and she has teaching offers and she still is front-page news. That is what I find most disturbing.”

Initially BOPA held firm. Through midday Tuesday, a notice on its website said that the festival seeks “to provide a platform for relevant and multi-layered conversations,” and looks for books “that expand our understanding of people, places and thinking that may be different than our own.”

But as criticism mounted, the organization reversed course.

BOPA’s about-face “is a sign that the city is coming together,” said Whitehead, an associate professor in the communication department of Loyola University of Maryland, “and that’s what the Baltimore Book Festival is supposed to be about. That’s what I like best about living in Baltimore. I’ve never seen a city respond more quickly and directly to what their residents want than Baltimore City does.”

Not everyone initially was opposed to Dolezal’s participation in the Book Festival. While Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, made it clear that she doesn’t like Dolezal’s deception, she said that society will only begin to heal if people are given free rein to say what they think.

“I think she should have been allowed to appear,” she said. “The biggest problem we have is when we shut down dialogue. We need to learn how to connect and communicate with one another.”

Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute in Washington, said that the First Amendment, which prohibits government agencies from engaging in censorship, “does not apply” to the book festival.

“They have a right to invite who they want to participate,” said Policinski, whose organization promotes free expression.

Nonetheless, he said, canceling Dolezal’s reading violates the amendment’s spirit.

“I favor the broadest possible exposure to ideas,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to endorse or defend them. People have stories to tell. Sometimes those stories are uplifting, and sometimes they’re challenging. But my philosophy is to listen even to those stories that I find repugnant. That’s the only way we’re ever going to find common ground.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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