Literature

Why More Books by Authors of Color Are Needed

We Need Diverse BooksRecently, the Duluth, MN public school system decided to drop two American classicsTo Kill a Mocking Bird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – from its required reading list because of their liberal uses of the n-word.

I agree with the books getting dropped, but not for the same reasons.  Quite honestly, there are many classic books by black authors that also drop the n-word a lot, like Invisible Man, Native Son, and Their Eyes Were Watching God and many others.  The two books in question written by Harper Lee and Mark Twain shouldn’t be removed because of the racial slur, but because they are outdated with problematic themes written from a white perspective.

When To Kill a Mocking Bird was published in 1960, it was groundbreaking because it was really the first book to address racism from a white liberal perspective. It became a symbol for white people who didn’t want to be lumped in with the KKK, Nazis and other white racists of the day. TKMB was like an earlier version of the #MeToo movement for white liberals.  However, the book did jumpstart the white savior complex genre, which is when a book or film that is supposedly about racism really centers around a good-hearted white protagonist and the issues of people of color are an afterthought.  The book should really be about Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, but it is entirely focused on the feelings of Atticus Finch, the good white liberal who has to save helpless black people from themselves.  We never know if Finch uses his white privilege to challenge the racist status quo beyond defending Robinson, but apparently, he turned out to be a racist in Go Set A Watchman.  You can read more about white savior complex here.

As for Huckleberry Finn, while Twain was a brilliant social commentator, the portrayal of Jim and Tom are problematic and just downright offensive near the end of the book.  If anything, the book reinforces some of the racist stereotypes of black people during the late 19th century.

Because these two books are still considered great American classics, they are still viewed as the best books for discussing race in the classroom.  But in reality, they are not.  It is hard to have meaningful discussions about race with these books in a classroom in 2018.  I remember reading both of these books when I was high school 25 years ago, and my well-intentioned, white liberal teacher found it difficult to really have a thoughtful conversation about it because she didn’t want to talk about slavery or black men accused of raping white women.

The solution to this is not just hiring more teachers and administrators of color (which is a whole other conversation), but to also include more books written by authors of color in the curriculum.  As the country becomes more multicultural, in order to truly address the racial realities in America, students need to read more books from the perspective of people of color.  There are statistics to back up this problem.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  In 2016, out of 3,400 required reading books from around the country, only 441 of them were written by authors of color (This number is black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American writers combined).  And this is in a country that will be minority-majority in 2050!

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my friend, Reginald, who is a gay, black man who works in a publishing firm that puts out young adult books.  He had an even more radical take on diverse reading than even I was thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium by dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level.  High school is a great time to expose students to diverse ideas and views since teenagers are beginning to develop their own identities and perspectives.”

As for his own reading habits:  “I don’t read books by white guys anymore. Those books don’t reflect my life, my color, my culture, my masculinity or my sexuality.”

It would be great if school districts included Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give as required reading, but that is me thinking out loud. Again, I am not for removing or banning all books from a white perspective, but it is time to include more books from diverse perspectives.

Why Banned Books Matter in 2017

Because Trump is president and our civil liberties are under threat!

The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) promotes awareness of challenges to library materials and celebrates freedom of speech during Banned Books Week, which took place this year September 24 – September 30.  Here are the top ten most challenged books as reported in the media and submitted to ALA by librarians and teachers across the country in 2016.

Top Ten for 2016

Out of 323 challenges recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom

  1. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes
  2. Drama by Raina Telgemeier
    Reasons: challenged because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint
  3. George by Alex Gino
    Reasons: challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels”
  4. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings by Shelagh McNicholas
    Reasons: challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints
  5. Two Boys Kissing  by David Levithan
    Reasons: challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content
  6. Looking for Alaska  by John Green
    Reasons: challenged for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation”
  7. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
    Reason: challenged because it was considered sexually explicit
  8. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
    Reasons: challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive”
  9. Little Bill (series) written by Bill Cosby by Varnette P. Honeywood
    Reason: challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author
  10. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
    Reason: challenged for offensive language

A People Speak in 2017

I just started re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for a book discussion series happening at my local library soon.  This is one of those types of books everyone has in their personal library but never gets around to reading because it is so long – nearly 800 pages!  This book discussion series is meant to get people to not only read but really think about how the book relates to issues going on in America today.  According to Zinn, American history is to a large extent the exploitation of the majority by an elite minority.

Zinn has left a great literary masterpiece behind for the rest of us to enjoy!