The Place of Race: Where ‘Black Books’ Fit in a ‘White Curriculum’

A couple weeks ago, I was on several panels in Las Vegas, first for NCTE (National Councile of Teachers of English), then for the Children’s Literature Assembly, and last for ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents). Over a few blog posts, I thought I’d offer some of my answers to the questions that panel organizers posed. These were my written answers, in advance of the actual session, so my live answers would have differed in part from these answers as I did not read my answers. But some of what appears here actually came out of my mouth, but maybe not sounding quite so smart.

This first question was from a session that seemed to have several different titles. This is the title I remember: The Place of Race: Where ‘Black Books’ Fit in a ‘White Curriculum’ . Rita Williams-Garcia and Sharon G. Flake were my co-conspirators er, um, I mean co-panelists. Lynne Alvine chaired.

Question: Although many very well-written books for young readers have been published during the past 4-5 decades, research by Arthur Appleby and others has shown that the English language arts curriculum in many American middle and high schools still relies on traditional canonized works of literature for students’ classroom reading and discussion. That means students are reading classic works from mostly male and mostly American or British writers.

And my response?

I’m an educator so I always want to know, Who are we benefitting when we ignore the many thoughtful books that don’t emerge out of the American or British canon? Are we benefiting our white students? Are we benefiting our students of color? On a purely practical level, the answer to both questions is no. If our students exclusively or primarily read books and engage in ideas that emerge from the United States or Great Britain, or from the predominantly white culture in those countries, we are not benefitting our students and we are not benefitting our country as a whole. Instead, we are deliberately cultivating a parochial outlook that will hurt us in all areas—business, science, politics, and the arts.

Recently, I heard an interview on NPR with a telecommunications businessman who said, “Look, we Europeans and Americans missed the boat. The Chinese saw the continent of Africa as a business opportunity and we didn’t. Now there are hundreds of millions of cell phone users across the continent of Africa and they are predominantly using Chinese cell phone technology.”

Why didn’t American businessmen see the continent of Africa as an opportunity? I think it’s because by and large, U.S. media presents Africa as a failure. We hear only about famine, war, and disease. And educators aren’t combating this in the classroom by introducing students to African literature, art, music, and history. At a party recently, I ended up talking with a fairly well-educated man who works in the medical field. He couldn’t understand why I would be interested in Africa. “But why?” he kept saying. “Africans are so backward! What have they ever done?” Among other things, I asked him if he knew that Africans had pioneered the technology for mobile banking. No. Nor did he care. He was more interested in reinforcing his negative perceptions about the continent.

We live in a global society. American kids can no longer afford to assume that knowledge of American culture, history, politics, and business practice is the end all be in terms of knowledge that they need to absorb in order to succeed when they finish their education and begin their careers. And the arts—books, music, theatre, and art—are the easiest way to introduce students to other ideas, other ways of life, and alternative ways of understanding the world and being in the world. So despite budget cuts suggesting that the arts are the least important aspect of education, we are still one of the most important aspects of education. The arts introduce children to cultural, political, and, yes, moral concerns that we can’t afford to neglect.

But beyond the practical reasons to expose students to the ideas, experiences, and beliefs outside of western civilization, there are compelling humanistic reasons as well.

In the early 17th century, almost four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote his famous poem, “No Man is an Island.”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Students need to be exposed to people outside of their small circles of culture, family, and friends in order to create empathy and the ability to transcend difference. Our society is diverse—we have to educate students to welcome an increasingly diverse world, whether that diverse world includes Africans, Asians, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, or others outside of the dominant cultural paradigm in the U.S.

A number of years ago, I was interviewing Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. I was writing an article about its then 30th anniversary. Now in its 37th year, Annunciation House has provided hospitality for almost four decades to immigrants coming to the U.S. from Central America and Mexico. Ruben was describing the changes he had seen in immigration patterns as well as American attitudes towards immigrants. In the 1980s, he said, there was a lot of sympathy toward the Salvadorans and Guatamalans who were fleeing war in their countries. Though officially, the U.S. didn’t offer these immigrants sanctuary, we did turn a blind eye, recognizing that they were political refugees. But in 1993, the Zapatista movement erupted in Chiapas, Mexico—and that changed everything. Mexican authorities worried about what it might mean if hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans joined the Zapatistas in rebellion against the government. So they started to police their southern border. As Mexico patrolled its southern border, and the refugees stopped trickling in to the U.S., the migrant worker situation in the U.S. changed as well. Mexicans, who had always crossed looking for seasonal work, began to dominate the scene. Support for the Sanctuary Movement slowly trickled away: the new immigrants weren’t fleeing war—they were fleeing hunger.  So politicians in the United States created new policies to police the border. When Mexican migrants were first coming through, Garcia told me, they would come up and work for ten months and then return home for Christmas, to see the family, to make repairs on their house. As security initiatives like Operation Hold the Line made that more difficult, migrant workers made the decision to send for their families.

So starting in the 1990s, Mexican migrant workers stopped being “migrant” workers and became permanent residents, though undocumented. And with their wives and children, settlements of Latinos soon also became permanent fixtures across the southern U.S. and the Midwest. Suddenly, it wasn’t just urban areas on the coasts or border states like Texas that were faced with how to educate non-native English speakers, and people from diverse backgrounds. Now it was folks in Georgia, and Tennessee, and Michigan, and Iowa, and even as far north as Alaska, where many Mexican immigrants work the oil fields. The influx of Latino families in the United States, the ones who have settled here permanently, are due in large part to the new border policies we put in place.

 This is just one example of how American demographics have changed in the last twenty years. Latinos are influencing American culture in enormous ways, notably, just recently, by voting for President Obama. Latinos are now shaping the way our country will look ten years from now, twenty years from now. This influence will only increase. The cultural paradigm which dominates the books that we tend to teach in our classroom no longer fit the current reality. We educators need to catch up. During the 20th century colonization of Africa, France transported French education in its entirety to its colonies. This meant that teachers often led their Senegalese or Algerian school children in discussions about “our forefathers” who embarked on the French Revolution. If we don’t recognize the changing cultural paradigm in the U.S., our own educational efforts may become as absurd.

Literature shows students the truth found in John Donne’s poem: No man is an island. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe (or America) is the less. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.


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