In honor of Black History Month, jclumpner of Arts Insubordinate urges teachers not to “fall into the trap of thinking that artistic genius is an exclusively European tradition.” The author asks, “Why do we call Picasso’s Cubism genius, but not the work of the Africans making the abstract masks that inspired him?” While the College Board has made some recent strides in diversity by changing its AP Art History curriculum, the same can’t always be said for English literature classes.
“It is of huge importance that every student in my class regularly sees examples of success that look like them,” writes jclumpner. I certainly agree. However, not every teacher knows quite how to make this happen.
I’ve been teaching middle/high school English for a few years now and it always shocks me how homogeneous the selected texts tend to be. As a woman of color, I didn’t identify with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout back when I was in school. Rather, I saw myself in The Color Purple’s Celie and the first-generation Chinese-American characters of The Joy Luck Club. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a book-rich household where non-white authors weren’t just novelty. My teachers, too, assigned novels that explored the lives of minority protagonists and families, such as Bee Season and The Bluest Eye. In college, I took courses like The Color of Theatre and Black Women Writers because, well, why wouldn’t I?
Later, while I was completing my year-long teaching internship, I remember a curriculum meeting I attended with the rest of the ninth grade team. I suggested we focus on Black writers for our poetry unit, since over 30% of our student population was Black and so far we’d only used texts by White (male and female) authors. One teacher asked, “But, what could we use?” I casually listed some of the most famous Black poets in American history–Hughes, Wheatley, Giovanni, Brooks, obviously Angelou–just to remind these qualified professional English literature teachers of what I was sure they already knew. An awkward pause. Blank stares. “We could do the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” one suggested.
I realized then that many teachers simply hadn’t been fortunate enough to learn about writers from diverse backgrounds when they were young. Perhaps they hadn’t grown up with books by authors of color on their shelves. Maybe the schools they’d attended had been less diverse, and they’d only been taught standards of the White western canon like The Scarlet Letter. It’s possible they were doing the best with what they knew.
The thing is, reading about the evils of racism in books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, which feature White protagonists, is not the most effective way to prevent or halt the development of prejudice in children and teens. It is far more impactful to select texts by authors of diverse backgrounds–ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation–so that students learn to value all authors’ contributions to literature.
Sunili Govinage wrote in the Washington Post that “reading more diverse literature has the power to convey the universality of human experience and show that we really have more in common with one another than expected.” She had completed a year of reading books by only minority authors, and had managed to move past what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story” narrative of suffering and oppression. This is something I’m still working on, as so many novels by minority authors that I’ve enjoyed deal with identity and “otherness” as central themes.
I urge all literature and drama teachers to seek out texts by minority authors, poets, and playwrights. Read them in your spare time and look for ways to use them in your classes. If you are truly committed to fighting prejudice, don’t wait until Black History Month to introduce students to works by minority authors. Here’s a list of 25 New Books by African Writers from The Atlantic to get started.