The Need for Diverse Literature in Today’s Curriculum

So, who is Morgan T. Jackson? She’s got a lot to say about life, family, + beginning a writing career. Read more below.

Since my last post focused on steps I’m taking to become a better writer, I’d like to dedicate this one to my observations regarding race + literature as a teacher + consumer. Let me preface this by sharing a theory that has been on my mind for quite some time, even before the racial issues we’re seeing today. Alright. Here it goes: I don’t think people of European descent truly realize just how valued they are in society.

Here comes the judgement. Some of you are wrinkling your noses in disgust. Some might be nodding your heads in agreement. The truth is, I’m not trying to ruffle anyone’s feathers or cause an uproar, + this is not a post intended to place blame or guilt on those of European descent because we all know that everyone struggles + has their own adversity. No one is denying that. My goal here is to explain why we as a society need to pay more attention to the plight of blacks + other colored people if we ever truly want to make progress, especially in education. Today I’m sharing my ideas on how whiteness is the societal norm, how it impacts the literature we’re teaching in school, + how it is molding our kids to understand which pieces of literature is the “right kind”.

All posts include a personal anecdote, so allow me to share mine. My love for reading + storytelling started specifically in first grade. My teacher used to read Junie B. Jones aloud to us, + boy, Junie knew exactly how to make my whole class laugh! Throughout elementary school, I fell in love with the Judy Moody series, the Mary-Kate + Ashley series, + a host of other books that featured *dramatic pause* white protagonists. It didn’t stop there. Throughout middle + high school, I read even more books that detailed the white experience: Twilight saga, Hunger Games series, The Luxe series, etc. I’d heard of various series featuring black voices growing up, but I never had a desire to read them because they often made me view blacks in a negative light, focusing on gangs or drug addiction. Typically, the books featuring white protagonists came from decent families living their happy-go-lucky everyday life + a younger Morgan wanted to read books about people from middle-class families. This was because I was already surrounding myself with predominantly white friends or colored friends fitting the “Oreo” stereotype, so I didn’t want to read books that drew negative attention from my peers. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to me once. In high school, I took an interest in a book series about black twins + their problematic wealthy stepfather. The books were written by black authors + I loved it! There was action, suspense, + a world different from my own, but one still relatable. It made me realize I should broaden my scope of diverse books. I read all three within just a couple of months. But, on the inside, there was this sinking feeling that what I was reading was wrong. One of my friends took notice of the book’s title + the black twins on the cover. She said with this disgusted tone: you’re reading that? It looks so ghetto.

Ghetto.

Let that word sink in as it is meant to describe anything that is “too” black, such as certain names, food, etc. I was immediately ashamed + went back to reading my white-friendly books.

You may be thinking, “Well, Morgan, you chose to read these books featuring white protagonists. No one made you do it.”

Correction.

Society did make me do it, even if indirectly. Because society controls which races fit in + which races don’t. As a child, I knew that whiteness was the “rightness.” How did I know? Well, think about it. Who predominantly graces the covers of magazines? Who constantly wins the Oscar + is often featured as the leading role in a movie? On that note, which books are often turned into movies? Would Harry Potter have been successful if he had brown skin, an afro, + said “Ma” instead of “Mum”? Maybe. But I guess we’ll never really know.

While I appreciate white authors + have found their work quite entertaining (I’m sure we all know which Hogwarts house we belong in), I can’t help but wonder when are we going to place our black authors on the same pedestal?

I started this post by mentioning that white people don’t realize just how valued they are in society. Here’s what I further mean: White people don’t have to often think about their race because we live in a world that caters to them. For example, colorism is a real issue. The lighter, the whiter, the righter. This may not be spoken amongst white families, but it is a fact black people have to contend with every day as the cause stems from our history. The desire to look white is not limited to the American experience. In some parts of the world, people pursue surgery to widen their eyes or bleach their skin so as to look more Western. Some people often desire a slimmer nose + may not even realize it comes from wanting to “fit in” which in this sense means looking more European. As a child, I didn’t realize white women went to the hair salon. I thought only black women went so we could look more like them, hence why we paid so much money for relaxers + presses. A younger Morgan often asked, why do white women frequent the hair salon if they’re already perfect? To me, they didn’t need to go because they already fit the standard of beauty with their naturally long, silky hair. In my eyes, white people have the luxury to live as themselves. Everyone else must assimilate. This is a fact that I don’t think people fully understand. It is a privilege to not have to worry about whether or not your hair fits in with the majority.

Back to the literature side.

The reason we only read that one Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes poem throughout our primary education is because, at the end of the day, we’re devoted to teaching our students that William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time. Unless I decide to study famous black writers in college, I’m graduating high school with the takeaway that Thomas Hardy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, + Mary Shelley are the cream of the crop writers (+ yes, there is a pun within that statement).

“But Morgan,” you may be thinking, “these authors have worked so hard to be studied today. Your way of thinking isn’t fair.” Well, that’s true to a degree. Their work is timeless for a reason. They revolutionized writing during their prime, yes, but who was deeming these authors as noteworthy then + still today? Because it certainly isn’t me, a black woman. No one’s asked me for my opinion. Our curriculum has been crafted with a Eurocentric mindset. It’s ironic that, during the American Revolution, patriots desired to break away from British rule, yet at the same time it’s often European writers our education system deem as a success. What about the marginalized voices? Why doesn’t their work count as a “literary genius”?

We’re definitely seeing a rise of black authors (Angie Thomas + Jason Reynolds to name a few) that are writing stories showcasing the black youth experience, one that is sometimes painful + doesn’t always come with a happy ending. When will the Scarlett Letters + The Crucibles be traded for literature that speak on what the world looks like today? It is no longer enough to only read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail one time in the school year. How are we going to implement works of black people + other minorities throughout the school year? How often are we going to read them? When are we going to tell our AP + IB students that Zora Neale Hurston, though a phenomenal writer, is not the only black writer that is out there?

On that note, studying literature should not be limited to something we do only in English courses. Social Studies, Math, + Science also have the potential to be places where we study black scientists, mathematicians, + former slaves. If we can praise Elie Wiesel all year round, we can do the same for Frederick Douglass too.

Let’s give these marginalized voices a chance + teach our kids that every voice counts, be they big or small.

Morgan T. Jackson

Published by morgsjackson

Teacher + Writer + Thinker based in SC.

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