Recently I asked three of my teen-aged great nephews about the last time they’d been assigned to read books written by black authors at their schools. All three answered with a resounding: “never.” Thus far in their educations, not one of their teachers has exposed them to black literature. I find this particularly disturbing because they attend three different public schools in Baltimore City, where roughly 63 percent of the population is black.
Why is African-American literature excluded from a curriculum that should be created with the needs of those educators are tasked with educating in mind? Why are my nephews not reading literature with which they can identify as young black men? Why are they not encouraged to read books that will aid them in understanding and navigating the black experience in America? By now my nephews should have been well acquainted with the words James Baldwin penned in that 1962 letter to his own nephew:
“You come from sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton, dammed rivers, built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, ‘The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.’”
Why aren’t black teachers making sure this happens? Are black parents insisting their children get the proper literary education? If so, why are their pleas going unheeded? I posed these questions to my sister-in-law, an educator in the Baltimore City Public School System for over 30 years. She basically told me that it all boils down to politics. It seems the politics of education is serving to deny students of color of their literary heritage. I was educated in Baltimore’s Catholic school system. I experienced literary racism. During the ‘60s and ‘70s it was to be expected. I find it egregious that the same state of academic affairs persists after 50 years.
My experience with literature was most significant to rediscovering who I was meant to become before the shadow of childhood trauma and the shade of the social injustice clouded my natural course. Words of color pulled me up out of the confusion and complexities of being on the dark side of racism to establish myself to myself and then to the world as a valuable and intelligent black woman. I needed to breathe in the reality of my past and the possibility of my future. Words of color did that for me.
Reading books written by people who look like me and who have like ethnic and cultural experience afforded me a sense of worth and value. As a teen, reading James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and W.E.B Dubois, being black in America began to make more sense to me. It was black literature that moved me to a place where my crisis of identity began to feel less and less like a crisis and more and more like something in which to take pride.
It became my mission to seek out the works of African-American authors. What they had to say, to teach, to pass on was crucial to my understanding of the black experience, my personal experience. Once I came to understand the incredible strength and resilience that is innate to African-Americans, I was able to lay down much of the victim mentality that was stunting my psychological and emotional growth.
For people outside of the African-American experience to read and study words of color will perhaps broaden their scope of understanding of people of color and quite possibly put them in touch with an empathy that may very well crack the shell of racism in which they too were born.
Our children deserve so much better from educators, administrators and, yes, politicians.
Roxanne V. Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer and poet, and a recent Goucher College MFA graduate. This essay was excerpted from her thesis, "Beyond The Canon: The Necessity of African-American Literature."