Cultural Diversity and the Use of Literature:
A White Professor’s Viewpoint on Best Practice
Dr. Charles H. Frost
“Because slavery and racism have been our most glaring national shame, a great deal of American protest literature has been concerned with these issues” (Annas & Rosen, p. 1123).
I have been struggling with the reality that I am a racist, born and bred, now for most of my 64 years. My father and mother never deliberately did anything ever to make me a racist. But I grew up in a culture that ensured that I would grow up as one. The schools I attended, the movies I watched, the literature I read were all dominated by white culture. However, it never really stuck. I frequently wonder why? Part of the reason is my life experiences. I felt the lash of oppression, or so my inner memories tell me, from even before I was born. So, early on in my childhood I made friends with and empathized with the underdog and that obviously included all those who were of color.
So when I became a professor, I knew that I wanted to help others become less racist in their behavior. It is relatively easy to get students to drop their racist attitudes while in class and to conform to our expectations. It is very difficult to get them to start thinking, feeling, and behaving in less racist ways once they are out of the classroom and on their own.
I recognize that I cannot do everything. I can give them assignments that require that they go to an African American church on a Sunday or eat the food of another culture on a Saturday. I can encourage them to travel to another country to see how others live. I can do these things and I do do these things. But, while I do them I know that the student is in control of the experience, not I, and that the student can go away from the experience more of a racist than before. Hopefully that will not happen, but, I have no way of ensuring what the transaction will result in.
Although many fine ways exist to help chip away at the racism imbedded in our society and in the minds of our students, I believe one of the best ways is through literature. As Tobias Wolff said: “In the arms of language (our students) will discover the family of humanity. They will learn what has gone before, and they will learn what is left to be done. In language they will learn to laugh, and to grieve, to be consoled in their grief, and to console others. In language, they will discover who they are.” The plays and poems, the novels and non-fiction literary legacy that we have is one of the best ways of getting students to open up their minds and receive into them another way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We have long done so in our English classes; however, it is still relatively rare than we purposely use our literature to change our racist students in all of our classes. It is not just our English classes, but our Sociology, Psychology, Social Work, Nursing, Medical School, Mass Communication, Criminal Justice, Political Science, History, Business School, Foreign Language---it is literally all of our teaching that should be informed by literature so that we move our students forcefully, gently, clearly, surely away from their comfortable relationships with racist ideologies.
Now clearly, some might protest that the Nursing curriculum is already full and cannot have another new expectation placed upon it without diluting some other critical area. Although I can appreciate that concern, I vigorously contend that it is a false one. Two things make me feel this way. One, I know of no discipline where cultural diversity isn’t a major concern area that deeply and powerfully infects and affects everything that the student needs to learn. Two, I am convinced that this is an area that can be incorporated into the curriculum without undermining other requirements. The key reason that most professors don’t incorporate the literature is not that they don’t have the room. The real reason is that they are not familiar with the literature and are not creatively thinking through how they would go about incorporating the literature. Once those two things are done, then the incorporation process become relatively painless.
Therefore, the focus of my presentation is on that literature with the hope that I can begin the process of helping others see how it is available to their discipline no matter what that discipline may be. I do this with considerable trepidation because in no way do I claim to be an authority on any of these subject areas outside my own discipline and I also readily profess that I am not an authority on literature in general or culturally diverse literature. However, that is one of the points that I am trying to make. It doesn’t take a great authority to incorporate the literature. All it takes is a willing spirit, a recognition of the need, and a felt urgency so that the effort is prioritized. With those caveats, let me proceed.
Three Areas of Literature
As I divide things up, we have three areas of literature that we should utilize in helping our students become more culturally accepting of others. We have literature by those who write about oppression in general, those white authors who write about the oppression of those of color, and the literature of those of color.
The general literature of oppression
Under this area we have too many pieces to consider as they range from the ancient yet still powerfully effective words in Sophocles’ Antigone (where we observe the struggle to overcome on four fronts: god versus the state, youth versus our elders, women trying to assert themselves against men, and the rights of the citizen against the power of the state) to Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man to the powerful embracing poetry of Walt Whitman up to very modern works by authors who are still producing wonderful works. The important thing we need to keep in mind is that we should only utilize a few of the thousands of works available to us. The point here is to simply let the white student appreciate that white authors have long recognized the importance of acceptance of and empathy toward others who are different. One of my all time favorites in this regard it the Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck and his Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath which can be powerfully taught through the fine movie by the same name starring Henry Fonda. Since I grew up in California where Steinbeck set most of his stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention William Saroyan. I acted in the college production of Saroyan’s wonderful play The Time of Your Life which had a profound and positive effect upon me. However, for teaching purposes I would encourage you to use his short non-fiction story Five Ripe Pears as it talks about how a child of 6 is wrongly accused and punished for “stealing” five pears. It is a rich little story about injustice that should get an interesting discussion going about how the world works. We might also utilize religious figures in this category including the life of Jesus to illustrate this point. I like to use Ozymandius by Percy Bysshe Shelley to show the student how literature has long recognized the fleeting quality of power as revealed in the poem’s final lines:
“’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
I also like to utilize Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory to help them appreciate that wealth, clothing, good looks---you name it---doesn’t equal happiness in this world we have created. Everyone admires and envies Cory in the poem with the final lines:
“And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
The bottom line is simply that we first have to establish that one of the most consistent themes down through the centuries has been the desire for human beings to relate effectively with one another and that this requires that we be treated as equals. It is important to do this for three reasons: (1) we want the student to see and accept that this is a basic if they are to become a decent and well educated human being; (2) we want the student to see that he/she is the beneficiary, not just others, if we create a more just society; and (3) we want the student to not feel under attack. This third point is very important. It is all too easy to present the literature as a condemnation of white people so that the student feels uncomfortable. Although some discomfort is to be expected and is of value in stimulating change, that should not be the end point of our educational endeavors. If we make the student too uncomfortable they are likely to become defensive and less open to the change in thoughts, feelings and behavior that we are trying to accomplish.
We want the student to align themselves with those who want this to be a wondrously accepting world. Our students tend to want this for themselves and tend to also incorrectly think that they feel that way toward others. This first step helps set them up for the second.
The white literature about people of color
This is a very interesting segment of literature that has both its good and bad elements. Amongst the finest is such works as Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience in which he forcefully argues that we should not accept a government that supports war in Mexico and slavery even if it means that we stop paying our taxes and go to jail. His words have long been the battle cry of those desiring change: “As for adopting the ways which the state has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.” Almost a century before Thoreau we had the voice of John Woolman who in his twenties, around 1740, began traveling up and down the East Coast preaching his opposition to slavery and as well argued for the redistribution of wealth for he believed that “liberty was the natural right of all men equally.” Woolman would not help a person write their will if it included the inheritance of a slave and was sometimes successful in so doing that he was able to change the opinion of his clients about slavery so that they freed their slaves. Before our battle for independence, he wrote in The Journal of John Woolman: “Deep-rooted customs, though wrong, are not easily altered; but it is the duty of all to be firm in that which they certainly know is right for them.” I would also recommend a short non-fiction story by George Orwell entitled Shooting an Elephant. Set in Burma where Orwell served as a police officer, the account of his shooting an elephant is short so that it could kick off a discussion on oppression in the past that could then be brought into the present. One of my favorite lines from the story is the following: “I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedoms that he destroys.” And the line: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” These lines are ones powerfully relevant to today’s racism. Orwell was born in India but raised in England. He joined the Indian Imperial Police in 1922 and served in Burma until he resigned in 1927, disgusted with the injustice of British imperialism and decided to write for a living and lived at the edge of poverty and mingled with social outcasts and impoverished laborers. His experiences produced Down and Out in Paris and London and if you have enough time to use it in your teaching this is a wonderful book and helped me as a youth appreciate the impact of poverty on the oppressed of the world. The only other example from the white literature that I would recommend is from South Africa. This is a wonderful play by Athol Fugard entitled “Master Harold”…and the Boys. Fugard’s attacks on apartheid brought him into conflict with his government and at one point his passport was taken away for four years. I would use this work for two reasons: first it is an excellent play that not only deal with racism but also with parental relationships; second, it is dealing with apartheid so that we can look with less guilt at what racism is like and then after discussing South Africa’s past we can jump into the deeper ocean of our own shameful history and current problems.
These I feel are among the best of the white literature because the authors were actors. They lived consistent with their concerns about equality and were willing in their behavior to sacrifice both their freedom and their income in support of their thoughts and feelings. Just in case I have not already made it obvious, I am pushing a thoughts-feelings-behavior position for educators as I am concerned that we too often think we have succeeded in our task when we have changed thoughts without our concern about feelings and behavior. I consider this to be the greatest of errors and I say this well knowing the dangers inherent in trying to accomplish all three. However, thoughtful risk taking is one of the most important things an effective educator does.
At this point I have now established a foundation for my student. He has an appreciation of the values and how people have acted upon those values. He sees that white America has long been concerned about equality. He now also needs to appreciate that we have not always been acting effectively in response to those concerns. This leads us to the other segment of the white literature about people of color, the literature that has helped to sustain our racism while it was ineffectively written to accomplish the opposite.
I like to use Ernest Hemingway as my best example of negative literature because he continues to be famous and widely read world wide. (You can find an in depth discussion of my concerns about Hemingway’s body of literature on my website at www.mtsu.edu/~socwork/frost. In passing, I might also mention that you will find a book of stories there that I wrote and use in my teaching so that you can judge for yourself whether I am more like a negative or a positive example of a white writer.) However, you may well have a better example. The point that I wish to make is that almost all the white literature is inherently biased and helps sustain a racist society. Although this is a very broad brush that I am tarring a large group of fine human beings with, it is the way I am forced to see things. In large measure this is due to the fact that white authors can rarely, if ever, fully appreciate the cultures of people of color. This in part is due to our enthnocentrism, to our viewing our dominant culture as superior, to in a word our being racists who readily assume our positions as oppressors while denying that we are oppressing anyone. As Wole Soyinka said in Death and the King’s Horseman: “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand.” Hemingway was very skilled and insightful in many ways; however, he failed to have respect for others due to what he did not understand about them---the “them” being women and African Americans amongst others. Hopefully my case for this position can be best addressed by examining our third and final group of authors.
People of Color Writing About People of Color
What is interesting about this area of the literature is that it is far larger than one who is either colored or white would appreciate. You see, most of our citizens are educated by white teachers who are not well read in terms of this literature so their students, whatever the color, tend not to be aware of this literature. Hemingway killed himself over 40 years ago but his name is far more readily recognized than most of the authors of color. Fortunately, most textbooks for literature courses include a decent representation of the literature of colored authors, but I would argue that the problem with these inclusions are that they are not effectively taught in a way to help the student appreciate how they can help him or her change the way they think, feel, and behave.
In this body of literature we have some truly remarkable works that are powerfully telling the story of oppression. It is that story that our students desperately need to hear and understand. They are able to remember and retain stories far better than facts and figures. They will carry these stories with them long after they have forgotten the philosophical discussions about oppression.
The following are some of my favorites and is a beginning sample of what is available. I have tried to divide them into four categories; however, some overlapping occurs.
Plays The poet Adrienne Rich said that: “Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.” Plays are designed to bring those assumptions into living, breathing view right before our eyes. When you are using them only as literature, then you have to teach the student how to visualize the play so that they are skilled at reading it and bringing it alive. As the great playwright Thornton Wilder said: “We live in what is, but we find a thousand ways not to face it. Great theater strengthens our faculty to face it.” Another great American playwright, Arthur Miller, said: “The structure of a play is always the story of how the birds come home to roost.” For our students to learn this basic concept, which applies not only to plays but to much of literature, would assist them greatly in understanding the relationship between their racist behaviors and how that behavior impacts negatively, both directly and indirectly, upon themselves.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry---Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have a play performed on Broadway---after she had raised the money for the out-of-town tryouts herself! It had a solid 19 month run on Broadway and was made into the movie by the same name starring Sidney Portier. Whether African Americans should continue to believe in the American dream or let it go in disillusionment is a major issue in her play. The title of the play is taken from the famous Langston Hughes poem. Hansberry once said that: “One cannot live with sighted eyes and a feeling heart and not know and react to the miseries which afflict this world.”
Harlem by Langston Hughes
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore---
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over---
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”
Dutchman by LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka)---short and powerful play filled with anger. The author shows us an intolerable society but he does so without abstract preaching. Instead he uses vivid characters engaged in a human relationship---a young black man and a white woman.
Fences by August Wilson---this play won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987 and still is a powerful play. Also, Wilson makes a very interesting role model as he dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and educated himself with the help of the public library by reading the works of black writers. The play also provides you with wonderful opportunities to discuss racism in the work force of America and how qualified workers and athletes were denied opportunities. The play helps you see how we expected African Americans to subscribe to American ideals while at the same time we denied them the basic ideals of freedom. The play reveals the scars that such treatment leaves.
The Dance and the Railroad by David Henry Hwang---Hwang won acclaim for his M. Butterfly but before that he wrote this play which is a wonderful two character play about the Chinese who built the railroads and how they successfully went on strike.
Florence by Alice Childress---this is a wonderful short play with only two main characters in it. Childress was for over a decade a director and actress with the American Negro Theater while she also acted on Broadway and on television. In this play, which is set in a segregated railroad station in the South, a poor old African American woman is planning on going North to talk her actress daughter Florence into returning home when she meets a well off white actress heading back to New York. The story could be easily acted out in a class room to help bring it alive. Imbedded in the story is an excellent example of how white people, including the white actress’s brother who arrogantly and inaccurately writes about the experiences of African Americans, fail to understand what is really happening around them.
Poetry “Poems do not usually hand out ideas ready-made. A poem may imply or suggest ideas; it may play them off or act them out” (Guth & Rico, p. 325). The poem, therefore, can be a starting point for a discussion, a way of urging the student to think more creatively and go beyond the cage that they have become accustomed to living in.
Sure you can ask me a personal question by Diane Burns---excellent example of anger with a sense of humor.
Looking Out by Mitsuye Yamada---What is nice about using poetry is that it often says so much in a very compact form that you can then slowly unpack with your students. For example, Yamada’s poem goes as follows:
“It must be odd
to be a minority
he was saying.
I looked around
and didn’t see any.
So I said
it must be.”
Incident by Countee Cullen---Cullen has numerous poems that you can effectively utilize. I like this one because it deals with a child and that often can be the way to get someone to rethink the way the world operates as almost everyone knows that the child should be spared:
“Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue and called me, ‘Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December:
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.”
I also like his For a Lady I Know and as it is very short it can be easily used to start a discussion on racism. It goes as follows:
“She even thinks that up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores,
While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To celestial chores.”
Audre Lorde once described herself as a “black lesbian feminist warrior poet.” Her first poetry collection, The First Cities (1968) focuses on the effects of racism on African Americans. She has said that: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within on which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” Her poem Power helps set the stage for a discussion of racism in the criminal justice system as it is her response when she heard how a ten-year-old Black child was shot and killed by a cop who was not convicted of the crime.
N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa whose writing explores the history and culture of his people and has his doctoral degree from Stanford. In addition to being a poet, his novel The House Made of Dawn won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Momaday has said that: “We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine who and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy to befall us is to go unimagined.” His poem The Eagle-Feather Fan captures some of the wonderful Indian culture.
Red Anger by R.T. Smith---this one gives you a taste of Native American anger. The poem ends with the lines where he is working at a lunch stand:
“I nurse my anger like a seed,
and the whites would wonder why
I spit in their hamburgers,
Tuscarora, Choctaw, Cherokee…
the trail of tears never ends.”
Sonrisas by Pat Mora---helps you appreciate the superiority of Mexican-American relationships and opens the door for Anglos to understand what is often missing in their lives:
“I live in a doorway
between two rooms, I hear
quiet clicks, cups of black
coffee, click, click like facts
budgets, tenure, curriculum,
from careful women in crisp beige
suits, quick beige smiles
that seldom sneak into their eyes.
in the other room senoras
in faded dresses stir sweet
milk coffee, laughter whirls
with steam from fresh tamales
sh, sh, mucho ruido, mucho ruido=a lot of noise
they scold one another,
press their lips, trap smiles
in their dark, Mexican eyes.”
Langston Hughes---in addition to his poetry, Hughes wrote novels, short stories, plays, radio and motion picture scripts, and nonfiction. He was also a frequent lecturer especially at black colleges. He also translated into English the poetry of black writers from other countries and his own poetry has been translated into many other languages. He created so many fine poems it is hard to select one as an example, but one of my favorites was quoted above in relation to the Hansberry play.
Indian Boarding School: The Runaways by Louise Erdrich---this is a good one for teaching about how we tried to destroy Native American culture by creating boarding schools for their children. Erdrich, a Chippewa Indian, is also a novelist having written The Beet Queen and Love Medicine. From Love Medicine I would recommend the story entitled The Red Convertible as it is a powerful short story that I believe will capture your students’ attention and make them think, feel, and behave differently.
The Dead Woman by Pablo Neruda---most of our students don’t even have a notion jingling around in their skulls about commitment and solidarity. This poem should help them to begin thinking about these basics. The fairly short poem ends with these lines:
“I shall go on living,
because you wanted me to be, above all things,
and, love, because you know that I am not just one man
but all men.”
Although some of the poets in this section were born in other countries, all of them experienced racism first hand here in America after they moved here. Neruda is the exception to this as he was from Chile. As a Chilean he had a distinguished career in their foreign service, was elected to the Chilean senate as a communist, was forced at one point into exile only to return and rejoin the foreign service, and at his prime was generally considered to be the greatest poet writing in Spanish. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. It is important for our students to develop an international perspective as they struggle with understanding cultural diversity and this is why Neruda is included. The international dimension, however, really deserves a course unto itself as it is terribly important in this global economy and shrinking world.
For My Father by Janice Mirikitani---this poem can be used to start your students thinking about another disgraceful racist episode in American history when we put Japanese Americans into concentration camps.
If We Must Die by Claude McKay---this is a strong call to fight back against racism. It ends with the following lines:
“Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
Maya Angelou---won the national book award for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the Pulitzer Prize for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie as well as winning an Emmy for her role in Roots and a Grammy for an album of her poem On the Pulse of Morning which she read at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. However, the poem that I most recommend is Phenomenal Woman, especially if it is dramatically read out loud in class which starts out with the lines:
“Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.”
Gwendolyn Brooks---the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her second book of poems, Annie Allen. I particularly like her poem truth. However, her poem We Real Cool is the one most often quoted:
“The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.”
“We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
This poem is great for oral reading and even could be acted out in class so that the students can hear its broken, beboppy counter-rhythm. It is a song for doomed youth who act cool as a way of defending themselves in a hard and dangerous world. They are drop outs on a dead end street and they jazz up things in the month of June because they know they will not live much longer. It can then become a lead in to a discussion of how these youth got where they are and what needs to be done so others don’t go down these same hard streets.
Joy Harjo is one of my favorite poets for reading out loud to an audience. She is a member of the Muskogee Tribe and she both writes and performs her poetry in addition to playing saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice. Harjo is a professor at the University of New Mexico.
Short Stories Donald Hall said that: “Great literature, if we read it well, opens us up to the world. It makes us more sensitive to it, as if we acquired eyes that could see through things and ears that could hear smaller sounds.” The advantage of the short story for the teacher is that it is possible for us to go over the work line by line until the student is able to “read it well”, a skill that they then can further develop on their own. I remember a teacher doing that with me almost 50 years ago with one of Shakespeare’s plays and how it changed the way I approached and utilized literature from that class foreward.
Letter to Ma by Merle Woo---powerful denunciation of what our racist society does to people. I listed it first because it provides an excellent opportunity for line-by-line reading in class so that the student could fully appreciate all that Woo is trying to get the reader to understand.
The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara---this is a insightful short story where a woman takes ghetto kids to FAO Schwartz, the huge and expensive toy store in downtown Manhattan in order to change the way they see their world. Bambara was born in New York City and early on in her career worked as an investigator for the New York State Department of Social Welfare so that she was intimately aware of the oppression of people of color on both a personal and professional level. This led her to being a consistent civil rights activist.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros---this one could lead off a nice discussion of the impact of housing on the impoverished. It also would go well with the next one on my list.
Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka---this is a wonderful combination of anger and humor dealing with racial discrimination in the housing market as a person asks about renting over the phone.
Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth---this was one tough lady who was born a slave and escaped. She developed her speaking talent as an evangelical preacher and then began touring the country preaching religion and the abolition of slavery. She was a powerful and a popular speaker. The following lines helped sway the debate between feminists and conservative ministers at an 1851 women’s rights convention:
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man---when I could get it---and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aint’ I a woman?”
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs---Jacobs was also born into slavery and was sexually harassed by her owner when she was around twelve. One of the passages that I particularly like in her story is the following as it helps to bring into sharp contrast how we treat people differently:
“I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave, and also her sister. When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight. I foresaw the inevitable blight that would fall on the little slave’s heart.”
This could open up an interesting discussion on how people could father a child which they would then treat as a slave. What went on in their thoughts and feelings that allowed them to behave in this manner? Then we could move the question to the current time and see if we might not find comparable events occurring where we seem to have a disconnect between what we value and the way we behave.
Big Black Good Man by Richard Wright---although we mostly know him from his famous work Native Son, this very short story does an excellent job of helping you think about how white people fear black people.
Etta Mae Johnson by Gloria Naylor. Naylor is best know to most by her The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories. I have listed her under short stories as you can take that novel apart and use any one of the stories if you don’t have time to utilize the whole book. My favorite part is the story of Etta Mae and her struggle to survive which started with her fleeing from Rutherford County, Tennessee. I also like it because it incorporates Billie Holiday’s great music including Strange Fruit which you might consider playing in class to enhance student learning.
Novels and Non-Fiction Joyce Carol Oates said that: “A story really isn’t any good unless it successfully hangs on and expands in the mind.” That should be our goal when we use the wonderful stories available to us as teachers. We should not take it for granted that our students will, without assistance, do this expansion process no matter how great the story is told. Oates is assuming a more sophisticated reader than many of our student are until we help them develop the skill at using the literature.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Ever since he wrote this book in 1963 and I read it in the 1960s I have been in his debt. This non-fiction book helped open my eyes to the depth of racism in America. We can also learn a great deal from his book Notes of a Native Son about how arrogantly and viciously we have treated African Americans. Baldwin was born in New York City, the son of a Harlem minister and he began preaching as a young teenager. Years later he experienced a spiritual crisis and left the church and began his writing career. Some of the stories he relates are far enough back in time that students could easily think that what he has to say is no longer relevant and this could be a good starting point for discussion as he is anything but irrelevant. The anger in his prose in response to America’s racism is still seething throughout our nation.
The Butchering at Wounded Knee by Black Elk---Black Elk (1863-1950) was a Sioux medicine man and second cousin to the famous Sioux leader Crazy Horse. The “Butchering” is part of the larger work Black Elk Speaks which was published in 1932. The non-fiction account of just one of many horrific scenes from our racist past is captured: “Dead and wounded women and children and little babies were scattered all along there where they had been trying to run away. The soldiers had…murdered them.” You can augment the reading of this with scenes from movies that depict this and other atrocities committed by our government against the Native Americans. I particularly like using the movie Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison---Although this is a well known book, the nice thing about this novel is that the first chapter was published as a separate work and you can assign just that chapter, called Battle Royal, if you can’t fit the entire novel into your course and it is a very powerful condemnation of how African Americans were treated.
Native Son by Richard Wright---Wright is best known for this novel, however, he wrote many other things that can be effectively utilized in our teaching including his autobiography Black Boy. Wright was the son of sharecroppers and born in Mississippi and then moved to Memphis, Tennessee where he worked odd jobs and began to write. In The Man Who Went to Chicago, which is what Wright did when he left Memphis, we get a glimpse of what he had to go through in getting jobs and holding them in order to survive. The relationships between the African American worker and the white bosses are a very revealing experience to read. You might also consider using his poem Between the World and Me which vividly describes a white mob who tars and feathers a black youth and then pours gasoline on him and sets him on fire. This could be used to kick off a discussion of what white people think and feel that makes them behave in this barbaric manner. Then you could update the discussion to today and see how we are comparably doing the same.
Beloved by Toni Morrison---in 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, the first American woman to be so honored in fifty-five years. Morrison was the child of sharecroppers and in Beloved she tells the story of an escaped slave haunted by the memory of the baby daughter she killed to keep her out of slave catchers’ hands.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker---this work was turned into an outstanding movie by the same name and therefore has reached a much larger audience. The movie can be used to supplement the literature and effectively develop and implant significant lasting images in the minds of our students. Walker is also a fine poet and I particularly like her poem Women which eulogizes the older women who led the way. I also highly recommend her short story Everyday Use from In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women in which the older mother decides who will get to inherit the family’s prize quilts, the younger hip daughter or the daughter who has stayed behind both literally and figuratively. But Walker is much more than a writer; she is a very caring soul who has worked for voter registration and welfare rights. Walker has emphatically proclaimed that: “No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion the gifts you labor so to bring into the world.”
I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.---I have chosen to close my list of great literature with Dr. King for several reasons. One, I think it is reasonably safe to say that all of our students have heard about him; however, it is important to recognize that many of them are not really familiar with his words. Fortunately, we can not only read his words in class, we can also watch him speak the words which can help to bring them alive. Two, as I type these words and prepare for the International Cultural Diversity Conference, it will have been 40 years since he delivered this speech in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963. (The year following this speech Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting racial discrimination in public places and calling for equal opportunity in education and employment. In that year of 1964 he received the Nobel Peace Prize.) What is important about this speech is that it can be used to explore whether the dream has come to pass after 40 years or not. And since it has not, we then can ask the question: In what ways have we failed as a society and as individuals so that the dream continues to be deferred? An important part of the answer to that question can be found in Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. (In 1965 King was protesting voting rights and when the protestors marched into Birmingham they were attacked by police and he was arrested. This was seen live on national television and led President Johnson to ask Congress for a bill that would eliminate all barriers to voting rights. Congress responded by passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.) The other part of the answer is related to Dr. King’s assassination. Although he remained committed to nonviolence, he began to shift his stance through a recognition that economic inequality---not just race---was one of the root causes of injustice. This led to his organizing a Poor People’s Campaign that would unite all poor people in the struggle for justice and this took him to Memphis, Tennessee to support a strike of African American sanitation workers. There he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Some of us believe that the reason Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated was because of this change in his approach as it was a greater threat to the American power structure than simply demanding an end to racism. I end on this note as it is the one our white students need to hear. They need to appreciate that the struggle for justice includes economic justice for everyone, including themselves, so that their commitment incorporates both a concern for others and a concern for self. As Dr. King said in his Letter: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He also called our attention to the fact that: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will….We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Our goal then is a relatively clear but demanding one---we owe it to our students to help them become more aware, less “shallow” in their understanding, to feel the pain that oppression and racism causes others and get in touch with their own pain that is so often inflicted upon them and which they tend to adapt to rather than struggle against; and then, building upon those thoughts and feelings, we can help them begin to formulate how they need to behave so that we lessen the oppression and racism of this world.
Some Final Notes on Best Practice
“Reading literature is not always an easy pleasure; it is not like enjoying a tasty meal or relaxing in a hot bath. On the contrary, literature makes significant linguistic, intellectual, moral, and emotional demands. Only if the reader attempts to meet these demands do works begin to yield their pleasures. The pleasures derived from literature are proportional to the energy we expended to achieve them” (Abcarian, Klotz, & Richardson, p. 2).
Most professors have already developed the skill necessary to profoundly appreciate literature. Tragically, few of our students come to us with such skill. Even more tragic is the fact that most of our students are not aware of the benefits of such skill and unmotivated to obtain it. They have more pressing concerns---they work too many hours so their time to read is limited and they have come out of an environment where instant gratification is the expectation so they are resistant to going through the delayed gratification process that is so necessary to serious scholastic skill development. This can at times appear to be an overwhelming task for the professor. Hopefully, we are able to see this as a challenge worth the effort on our part. As we bring our excitement into the classroom, it tends to become infectious. As we get excited and use dramatic readings, clips from films, and constantly help our students see how the literature is relevant to their current efforts to live wonderful lives; then they begin to develop the skills they need and to become magically transformed by literature.
In this effort to stir their curiosity and help them become more creative human beings, we need to help them see the convergence of concerns. Many of our students are never going to prioritize the end of racism and the values inherent in inclusive justice. Therefore, they have to be lead toward an appreciation of how their other higher priority concerns are related. The dangerous degradation of our planets resources, the continual wars, the lack of meaningful jobs, the desire to have loving relationships and to form rewarding families, the balance of world trade and global competition---all these and other key concerns and problems inevitably are related to oppression and racism. We must be aware of this convergence of concerns and help our students understand it as well in order to effectively start their motors of motivation.
References: (Although the above literature is available from many sources, professors tend to utilize various collections for their textbooks. The above material can be found in one or the other of the following books. I have deliberately restricted myself to standard texts so that the material is readily available.)
Abcarian, Richard; Klotz, Marvin; & Richardson, Peter. (1998). Literature: Reading and Writing the Human Experience (Seventh Edition). St. Martin’s Press: N.Y.
Annas, Pamela J. & Rosen, Robert C. (1990). Literature and Society. Prentice Hall: New Jersey.
Barnet, Sylvan, Berman, Morton, & Burto, William (1989). Types of Drama: Plays & Essays (Fifth Edition). Scott, Foresman: Boston.
Beaty, Jerome & Hunter, J. Paul. (1989). New Worlds of Literature. W.W.Norton: N.Y.
Kirszner, Laurie G. & Mandell, Stephen R. (2001). Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing (Fourth Edition). Harcourt: N.Y.
Guth, Hans P. & Rico, Gabriele L. (2000) Discovering Literature. Prentice Hall: New Jersey.