The Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City has been good to me. Over the years, I’ve spent many hours at their café tables, drinking coffee, reading and tinkering with my own writing. But last weekend, as I hunched over my latté and a few intriguing titles plucked from the shelves, I felt again the dissonant pang that accompanies a glance at the mural behind the café counter.
The mural depicts a literary scene — a salon, perhaps — where famous authors sit and presumably talk about their craft. Among the heavy-hitters, this tableau includes a feisty Hemingway, a musing Nabokov, a distracted Joyce and a smug Orwell. These modernist titans not only have outsized reputations, they appear as giants in the mural, too. Five of my heads could fit inside any one of their noggins.
There’s just one problem, and you don’t have to be an English teacher to notice it. Not a single writer of color appears anywhere in this expansive scene.
Twenty-two years ago, before I started teaching high school in Baltimore, would I, a white guy, have been troubled by the absence of minority authors in this mural? Maybe, maybe not. I probably would’ve chalked it up as predictable deference to many of the same dead white males who crowded my college syllabi.
But over the years, the kids in my classroom have schooled me and made me more conscious of the inequities around us. These teens have opened my eyes to the ways they sometimes feel like exiles in their own country: left out, forgotten or otherized.
Last month, the point was made by a trio of male students who, while analyzing Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,” brought their own sense of alienation to the poem by describing incidents in which fellow pedestrians clutched their purses or crossed streets to avoid them. “For what?” one student asked, bewildered.
On a different day, it was delivered by several students expressing frustration that the city doesn’t do more for the addicts “nodding” near our school, and another chiding them for thinking it would ever change.
The inequity comes through in the way many students talk about the police and courts, with a palpable fear that these institutions are fixed against them. And it’s in the stories kids tell about fathers or uncles or older brothers who were convicted of crimes — often non-violent drug offenses — as young men and who’ve been rendered largely unemployable since.
If students at my school walked into this Barnes & Noble, what would they think? The kids who are reluctant readers with limited exposure to books might think black folks don’t write books. The kids who are already avid readers might infer that black authors don’t deserve to be celebrated or have few admirers. Would some students feel their own identities devalued? Would their perception of their own prospects dim?
The kind of insidious exclusion perpetrated by the Barnes & Noble mural is an example of white washing. It is an erasure that removes people of color from the media.
I wondered if the murals inside other Barnes & Noble cafes are like this one. Near my father’s retirement home in Alexandria, Va., I checked out the Potomac Yards Barnes & Noble. There I found another mural that is an all-white tribute to literary greatness. Near my sister’s house in Rockville, Md., I visited the Barnes & Noble at Rio where, again, 100% of the represented authors in the mural are white. The writers may vary, but their skin color does not.
Some stores do better. A block from Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, the Barnes & Noble on 33rd Street offered a modest improvement. Here portraits of African American writer Langston Hughes; the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda; and the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore, appear between Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf.
The mural represents an ideal. It signals who and what we should value. And while Joyce, Hemingway and Nabokov wrote books that should be read and celebrated, so did Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to name just a few other 20th Century greats who weren’t given a seat at the table.
In June, Barnes & Noble was sold to Elliott Management, which owns Waterstones, the largest retail bookseller in the U.K. Let’s hope the new owner will update these murals so that kids of all backgrounds can see themselves in the West’s greatest authors.
Adam Schwartz (firstname.lastname@example.org) has taught high school in Baltimore City for more than two decades.