It’s Time to Desegregate English Classrooms

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it…. No, I do not weep at world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”—Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me,” World Tomorrow, 1928.

Can you feel the strength and soul of the author in this quote? I hope so, because Zora Neale Hurston, along with her contemporaries of the Harlem Renaissance and her modern contemporaries of today are exactly what is needed in the reading curriculum of our schools. Yet, Zora Neale Hurston is often overlooked at best. When, or rather if, the Harlem Renaissance is taught, it is but a blip on the radar in most English classes in this country. The same rings true for most authors who are not white. They may appear in brief cameos in our English classrooms, but that’s about it. Instead, our students read primarily dead white writers from the supposed “canon” of English literature. Talk about a travesty of an education. It is nothing more than academic white privilege when writers of color are ignored or minimized rather than taught.

Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I feel it is important to read the classics. There are lessons to be learned from the great writers of the “canon” of literature. I am not advocating the abolition of reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or the like. They need to be read and the historical context of when they write must be taught alongside of their works of literature for they are inter-related and a piece of our collective history as a human race.
However, the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, N. Scott Momaday, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and countless others need to be taught as well. Not glanced over, but actually taught to our students. Yes, this list includes writers who are Black, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, and Asian. That’s the point.

Of these authors of color, I want to single out the authors who are Black, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the necessity of our schools helping to give our Black students, and indeed reminding the Black community as well of their vital heritage and culture, role models from the Black community instead of making them read only white authors all of the time.
I cannot count the number of times I have spoken with students who are Black and they have never heard of Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, or Zora Neale Hurston. It is appalling, but not surprising. I taught middle and high school English in Florida for about 12 years. I literally taught about 35 miles from Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville and there were students, and a few teachers, who had never heard of her. That is egregious!

It is imperative that students see and read authors who look like them in order for them to see the richness of their cultural heritage instead of only the cultural heritage of white authors of European descent. I propose that all school districts come up with a curriculum that requires the reading and study of authors of color alongside the traditional canon of literature. While it will not solve the racial issues we have as a country, it will help to desegregate the literature read and foster communication and understanding through literature by having students read authors from across cultural and ethnic lines.

Additionally, when students read authors who look like them and share similar cultural experiences as they do, it encourages reading, boosts self-esteem/self-image, and provides positive role models for them. All of those, in turn, help students achieve better in school and in life. In addition, when students who are not normally exposed to other cultures read authors from differing cultures, it enhances understanding and empathy, promotes tolerance, and helps society as a whole.

I know this because I witnessed it on a small scale when I taught middle and high school English in schools that varied from having a homogeneous student body to ones having a more diverse student body. While it did not eliminate racial or cultural issues, it did alleviate them. I also saw the faces of students who read, for the first time, a book by an author from their cultural/racial background. It was like a light appeared for them. They saw how an author who looked like them could write and tell a story that mattered. In many cases, I would deliberately take books from authors of varying cultures and present them to students based on common themes. The discussions my classes had were amazing as they made connections between the books, their lives, and the lives of their classmates. Students learned so much about one another as well as themselves, and the literature. That is real learning. That is what we need to be doing in our schools.