Morgan T. Jackson has a lot to say about life, race relations + 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 reader, consumer + teacher (there will be some ramblings below, so proceed with caution!).
Let me preface this by sharing a theory that has been on my mind for quite some time.
Alright. Here it goes.
Some white people will never truly realize how valued their race is in literature.
Here comes the judgement! Some of you are wrinkling your noses in disgust, but 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 white people because we all know everyone struggles + has their own adversities. No one is denying that. My goal is to raise awareness on why we need to pay more attention to the lack of people of color in mainstream literature. Today, I’m sharing my ideas on how whiteness is the societal norm, how it impacts the literature our kids are reading + 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 started in first grade. My teacher used to read Junie B. Jones aloud to us. Y’all, Junie B. knew exactly how to make me laugh! My mom got a few more books for me to read from the series between my first + second grade years. I would reread Junie B.’s experiences over + over again, entertained every single time.
A trend started occurring after my first encounter with Junie B. (one I didn’t quite notice until I got older). 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 shining light on the white experience: Twilight saga, Hunger Games…whatever fantasy or romance trope that was popular at the time, I devoured it.
I’d come across various series featuring black voices growing up, but I never had a desire to read them. At the time, I thought they shed black people in a negative light, focusing “too much” on gangs or drug addiction (disclaimer: as an adult now, I realize I never truly gave these titles a chance because of my own issues with self-hate). Personally, I wanted to read “happier” genres because I didn’t think I could relate to the black protagonist who faced a prison sentence (of course, not all books featuring black protagonists are set in this location, and even if they are, that does not mean they are not not good enough. I just wasn’t trying to read any books with black characters at the time due to my own prejudice).
Now, which racial group did I subconsciously think was the happiest? White people! The books I sought after featured white protagonists who came from well-to-do families living their happy-go-lucky, everyday life. And why did I want to read these books? Well, I was already considered an “Oreo” by my peers and surrounding myself with predominantly white friends or assimilated friends of color. I didn’t want to read books that drew negative attention from my friends.
But, that’s exactly what happened anyway.
Around my freshmen year of high school, I took an interest in a book series about black twins + their problematic wealthy stepfather. The books were written by black authors. And y’all, I loved them! So much so I read all three books in the series within just a couple of months. And who’d be able to put them down? There was action, suspense + a world incredibly different from my own, but one still relatable. This series changed my perspective on reading. It made me realize I should broaden my scope + read more diverse books. Buuuttt, on the inside, there was this sinking feeling that what I was reading was somehow wrong. A friend 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.
Let that word sink in.
A quick Google search defines ghetto as a “city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups”. In every day conversation, though, this word describes anything “too” black. After my friend called this book “ghetto”, I was immediately ashamed + went back to reading my white-friendly books.
You may be thinking, “Well, Morgan, you chose to read books with white characters. No one made you do it.”
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 whiteness was the “rightness.” How? Well, think about it. Who graces the covers of magazines? Who snags the leading role in a blockbuster movie? On that note, which books are often turned into movies? Would Twilight have been successful if Bella Swan had brown skin + 4C hair? Eh, probably not.
Now, while I appreciate white authors + have found their works entertaining, 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, a cause stemmed from our history.
The desire to look white is not limited to the American experience. In other parts of the world, people pursue surgery to widen their eyes or bleach their skin to look more Western. Fun fact, as a child, I didn’t realize white women went to the hair salon because I thought their hair was already perfect.
No, really, I did! In my youth, I thought only black women went to the hair dresser so we could look more like white women. Hence why we paid for relaxers + blow outs.
So, why bring these examples up + even mention hair/colorism? Because as an impressionable black girl growing up in the South, I was conditioned to read stories with white protagonists by the media + my peers. I just didn’t know how to coin my experience until now. If this has been my experience, I know today’s students are going through the exact same thing, which brings up my next topic on literature in the classrooms.
Look, I was already wary of reading black stories for fun in my adolescence, but honestly, I don’t remember reading a whole lot black authors in my high school English classes either. We read Elie Wiesel (Night), Arthur Miller (The Crucible), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter)…and a bunch more old white guys. What I have realized in my adulthood now, is that, unless I decide to study famous black writers in college, I’m graduating high school with the takeaway that Shakespeare + Mary Shelley are the cream of the crop writers (yep! pun intended!). I don’t think my teachers ever even spoke on the subject. But then again, why would they? My high school days were back in the 2010s where diverse literature wasn’t as important then as it is now.
I do remember reading one Langston Hughes poem, but that was back in the sixth grade during Black History Month. But as an educator who’s grown with the times, reading that one Langston Hughes poem around the same time every year is no longer good enough. A sad truth I’ve come to discover when English teachers lesson plan is this: we’re devoted to teaching our students that William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time.
And that’s simply not the case.
“But that’s not fair,” we say, “Shakespeare worked hard to be studied today. Your way of thinking doesn’t take his natural gift into account.” Well, that’s true to a degree. His work is timeless for a reason + can still be incorporated into the curriculum. He did revolutionize writing during his prime, but I can’t help but wonder…who exactly deemed these authors as noteworthy in the first place? Other old white guys in tights?
Our curriculum has been crafted with a Eurocentric mindset. It’s ironic that, during the American Revolution, patriots sought to break away from British rule, yet at the same time it’s often European writers our education system deem as a literary 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 but not unnecessarily without a “happiness” in their story. When will the Scarlett Letters + The Crucibles be traded for literature that speak to what the world looks like today? How are we going to implement works of black people + other minorities throughout the school year?
It truly has taken me over a decade to realize how important it is for everyone’s voice to be shared + respected. I really am grateful for the books I read during my undergrad. Passing by Nella Larson and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum helped changed my perspective on literature + race . As an adult reader + consumer, I am still challenging myself to read more books by authors of color + to not limit my scope to white protagonists. As an educator for over five years, though, I’m constantly looking for books that all of my kids see themselves in.
Let’s give these marginalized voices a chance + teach our kids that every insight counts, no matter where the story is set.
Morgan T. Jackson