Saturday, September 30, 2017

Teach Everybody's Literature to Everybody

I was speaking with a fellow high school English teacher a while ago about our curriculums, and especially the way our students and families react to them. One of the issues we both agreed on was the need to diversify the texts that students read, so that they get many different cultural perspectives on the world. For a long time, it was difficult to find literature textbooks that reflected any kind of diversity in their choices of authors, even in so-called world lit or American lit texts. I remember being at a teachers' convention once, many years ago, and talking to a representative for a particular Christian textbook company about the lack of diversity in their literature books. I was looking through the table of contents to see if they had made any changes (they hadn't), and it just popped out that my school wasn't using their texts any more. When the rep asked me why, I told him it was because their American literature book, which came in two volumes, had less than five works by African-American authors, and none by Hispanic or Asian American authors. In addition, the "world" literature book had zero works from anywhere outside of Europe, besides Russia. Lots of French, English, German, Russian, and even (White) American authors, but, as I pointed out, none from Africa, South or Central America, or Asia, and no works from any people of color at all. His response was that most of our students don't speak those languages. In my head, I said, "It's called translation, fool." Out loud, I pointed out that more of our students spoke Spanish than Russian or German, and they didn't seem to have a problem using translations when the original language was European. Then I walked over to the Starbucks kiosk and peacefully drank a green tea to recenter myself.

I think I'm much more sensitive to the issue now because I'm at a different school with a different clientele. I went from a school where the students were all Black, which is also not diversity, to a school where the wide majority of students are white, then Hispanic, and the noticeable minority is either Black or Asian. I love my new school, and they're all good students and families, but the culture is different. I never used to have to deal with the question "Why do we read so many Black authors?" So far, I haven't gotten that from parents or administration, only a couple of students. And students I can forgive for ignorant questions, because, obviously, it is my job to educate them. Still, I've been teaching American literature for going on twenty years now, and I've never felt the importance of ensuring diversity in what my students read more than now, in this culture and in this political climate.

The truth is, most of us insulate our selves from others - other races, other nationalities, other religions, other lifestyles - because it's harder to challenge, correct, and change our worldviews than it is to close the gates, circle the wagons and protect them. And that's all we're doing, protecting them, not even defending them. Defending our beliefs and our traditions would at least require considering the other side of things, other opinions, other perspectives. This is what bothers me most about this Trumpist movement, that there's so much anger and retaliation at just the expression of a conflicting idea.

"Get him out of here," he said, and a old man who looked as if his brawling days were at least forty years behind him punched a handcuffed man full force in the face. Remember that?

The same thing happens in our classrooms, especially English, when we exclude certain voices from our students' experiences, and homogenize everything in their education to reflect everything in their homes. I feel the need for voices of color in a class where the majority is white much more keenly than I did in a class where the majority was Black. In the Black classes, it was a matter of making sure that my students saw themselves reflected in the world they read, even when the textbooks didn't necessarily make that easy for me to do. In the white classes, it's about making sure that they know that there are other people, other voices, other perspectives, and that every dissenting voice isn't stupid, or disrespectful, or unpatriotic, or biased, at least not any more than they are themselves.

They need to know that Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are not African-American, and never wanted to be.

And the best thing about being an English teacher interested in cultural diversity, especially when you have an administration that backs you, is that the students can't just tell you to get out of here or that you're somehow disrespecting some sacred icon. They have to read it; they have to hear that voice. It's ironic how we're all supposed to be American, just American, the same type of American, when people complain about their situation in this country, but then we become keenly aware of race and nationality when we see more than two non-white authors on the syllabus. To some people, that somehow makes the teacher some kind of crusader. Can you imagine? Why are we reading Beloved in AP English? Partly because you need diversity. More than that, we're reading it because it's in the top three novels that appear most often on the AP Literature exam, because it's taught in universities across the country as an example of great American literature, and because people who should know say it's a brilliant work of art.

So, to all the English teachers trying to diversify the texts that their students read, keep it up.

To all of the administrations backing those teachers, hold that ground and defend them.

To all of the administrations and teachers who are blocking diversity in the literature curriculum, seriously consider whether you are really educating these students, or just reflecting themselves back to them.

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