A couple of weeks ago I had a really interesting conversation with my friends Linda and Reginald about the need to have more books in K-12 schools representing diverse authors and perspectives. This talk was spurred on by a recent article by science fiction writer K. Tempest Bradford who challenged readers to stop reading books written by heterosexual, cisgendered white males for a year. (FYI – cisgendered means someone who psychologically matches the gender they were assigned to at birth, as opposed to transgendered. It’s a new term to me too!).
Bradford says she grew tired of reading other science fiction in mainstream magazines that were mostly written by straight, white guys. So she took on the challenge to only read works by women, people of color and LGBT writers for one year. After the year-long “sabbatical,” Bradford said that “cutting that one demographic out of [her] reading list greatly improved [her] enjoyment of reading short stories” and that she now has “a new understanding of what kind of fiction [she would] enjoy most, what kind of writers are likely to write it, and how different the speculative fiction landscape looks when you adjust the parallax.”
Bradford is not the only one who took on this radical way of reading books. Australian writer Sunili Govinnage also took the challenge herself to only read books by writers of color, and then realized “just how white [her] reading world was.”
Now back to my discussion, my friend Linda is a half-white, half-Puerto Rican high school English teacher and a mother of a nine-year-old daughter, and my other friend Reginald is a gay, black man from Trinidad who works in the adolescent book publishing industry. As you already know, I am a writer who runs a digital imprint, do advocacy for my local public library and has worked in a multicultural bookstore before. The three of us are in total agreement that schools should have reading lists that represent diverse writers. Linda likes the position Bradford and Govinnage take on multicultural school reading and would like to see more books by writers of many marginalized backgrounds in high schools. She says she also encourages her daughter to read diverse literature.
“I think my school district does an so-so job with multicultural writers, but their ideas of ‘multicultural’ is reading Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes during black history month,” Linda said. “I am tired of teaching mostly about white guy writers. Everyone knows who Mark Twain and Shakespeare are, but Esmeralda Santiago, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri and Octavia Butler are great writers too who need more attention and are more contemporary. I would like my school to have more required reading lists to include other people of color, even lesser known writers, and writers with disabilities.”
Based on his 12 years in the publishing industry, Reginald said that it is still hard to increase the number of diverse writers in schools and in bookstores in general. He said many schools have reading curricula that are decades old and don’t reflect the changing racial demographics in America today. This has mostly to do with the lack of people representing marginalized groups in positions of power in both school districts and publishing houses to make decisions about making more diverse literature available to students and readers of all ages for that matter. He also said that some school districts find it easier to stick to “tried and tested” known authors, which are usually dead white guys and occasionally diverse writers like Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison, because it is easier to teach and cheaper to buy mass market copies of Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby than a lesser known book, which is usually written by a marginalized writer.
However, Reginald had an even more radical take on diverse reading that even Linda and I were thinking: “Schools should put a moratorium on dead, straight, white guys, at least at the high school level. High school is 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.”
Reginald said he likes reading James Baldwin, Thomas Glave and E. Lynn Harris. Linda said she had similar reading habits. “I only seek out books by black, Asian and Latino writers. Their experiences reflect my own experiences as a person of color.”
I understood where they were both coming from, but I was actually kind of shocked by the fact that a school teacher and a book publishing executive would take such an extreme, and possibly narrow-minded view on literature.
So what do I think about this matter?
I like reading books by all kinds of authors – black, Asian, Latino, Middle-Eastern, LGBT, disabled, women, men, political, apolitical, religious, atheist, and, yeah, even some dead, straight, cisgendered white guys! While I enjoy reading books by people who I have a shared background with, reading to me for the most part is more about learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives. In order to be a well-rounded person in today’s society, you have to understand everyone’s perspective, even if it offends or scares you sometimes. That is how we evolve as a people.
If you have been following my writings for a while, you know that I like to read biographies and books about politics and history, and I write long, exhaustive essays about them. I like learning about how other people think and how their thinking shapes society. Two of my favorite writers are Upton Sinclair and Ernest Hemingway – two dead, straight, cisgendered, white guys. I am also a big fan of Richard Wright not just because he is black, but also because he is a great storyteller. Although he is best known for his racially-charged fiction work, I actually prefer his non-fiction travel writing like Pagan Spain, Black Power and The Color Curtain, which I wrote about last week.
Currently, I am rereading (yeah, because rereading is fundamental) The Politics of Change by Michael Manley, the charismatic former prime minister of Jamaica. Obama’s recent trip to the Caribbean to meet with CARICOM sparked my interest in reading Manley’s most influential work again. I didn’t read it just because he is black and Jamaican like me; I read it because he has interesting views on development economics and social policy.
As far as schools are concerned, yes, more diverse authors and perspectives need to be added to reading lists, but don’t cut out the white dudes. Everyone’s perspective should be welcomed at the table of ideas.
But maybe I’m wrong here.
If Linda and Reginald feel this way, there must be others. Please leave a comment below or email me about your reading habits. Does the author’s background influence if you will read their book? What are you reading now and why?