There has been an influx of reading lists for white Americans to more deeply understand the long history and enduring egregious examples of systemic racism in our country in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a rational and important reaction: we know that reading increases knowledge, understanding, and empathy.
I am a white educator in a predominately white county and school. Too often, segregated white spaces are insulated from needing to do the urgent work of dismantling racism. As an educator, I feel a great deal of responsibility (and privilege) to make this work part of my life both inside and outside of the classroom. I’ve written about some of my lesson plans at SchoolJournalism (a list of recommended links is at the bottom of this article, including my African American Literature syllabus and course resources).
When Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread into small, rural predominantly white towns across America, communities in my county were impacted this summer. Kristen Dragotto, a reporter at our local newspaper, reached out to discuss the ways in which literature can help dismantle racism. As an educator who is the chair of a diverse books nonprofit, which works closely with our local libraries and independent bookstore, I was excited to talk about the power of literature. Her article highlighted local initiatives.
While the impetus of our conversation was books–from children’s books to my African American Literature course–these concepts are absolutely interdisciplinary. English, journalism, media, and history classes can all benefit from embracing the “windows and mirrors” approach to diversifying our curriculums.
We had an extended conversation that is included below.
KD: Why does literature pertaining to the Black experience, racism and discrimination help start the conversation that generally makes people uncomfortable?
LK: Literature allows us to learn and understand history and human beings in a unique way. Whether through fiction or nonfiction, when we understand the world through others’ perspectives, we can be more thoughtful and analytical about ourselves and our reactions to others and the world around us.
If we only read literature and experience the world through eyes that match our own, we are not going to see other people as fully human.
Reading literature also gives us the opportunity to dig deeper into history and helps us make meaning through analysis–if we can pause and read critically, and know that our experience isn’t the only experience, we are also going to use those analytical skills when we consume news, entertainment media, and social media.
Reading literature and watching films also gives us the opportunity to take in thoughts and ideas individually, which can help us work through our own vulnerabilities and biases before discussing topics with others, which is a necessary second step.
KD: Why is it so important for these conversations to take place?
LK: Even if we live in a racially homogenous community, we do not live in a homogenous world. If we only read literature and experience the world through eyes that match our own, we are not going to see other people as fully human. There is so much history to unpack, and so many voices to hear, and only then can we understand one another with knowledge and empathy. James Baldwin said, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” In the unknown there is fear, and fear breeds a kind of “otherness” that can easily lead to hate. When we attempt to dismantle that, painful realities about ourselves and our history must be dealt with–but the reward is worth it. It’s much harder to have knee-jerk reactions when we have context and empathy.
When these conversations take place at home or in the classroom, we can have uncomfortable conversations in comfortable spaces. Only in discomfort can we grow.
KD: In your experience how does literature create empathy?
LK: I have had more than one student tell me after taking African American Literature that the course broke their brain. It is said in appreciation, and I always know that it’s not because of me, it’s simply that they’ve been inundated with voices and perspectives that they largely have not heard before. Since the course is chronological, we read America’s history via nonfiction and fiction in a way that shapes our understanding of what’s happening in 2020. It’s also clear that when we have more knowledge of African American history as a whole, we can discuss current events with more depth and empathy.
I grew up in the community in which I now teach. I was interested in social issues as a teenager, but reading Native Son by Richard Wright in George McKee’s English classroom–in a rural, predominately white school district–broke my brain open in a way that I have always deeply appreciated. I went on to focus on African American Literature in my undergraduate studies, and I’m incredibly thankful that I have the experience to teach it in my own classroom. White teachers in white spaces should harness the power and potential of doing the work: researching and teaching African American fiction and nonfiction.
Toni Morrison said, “Books change your mind.” That is anecdotally and empirically true.
KD: There is a high demand for books pertaining to the topic of race and discrimination, what role do you think this will play in the current revolution we are seeing?
LK: I hope that the demand continues, and I hope that African American literature and history becomes part of schools’ curriculum and diverse perspectives are amplified in news and entertainment media in a widespread and sustained way, and not just as a response to current events. The goal should be to understand and teach that African American history and literature is America’s history and literature.
A GoogleDoc compilation of my African American Literature syllabus and various course resources: African American Literature: Reading List, Films, Playlists, Resources, etc. (GoogleDoc)
Anti-Racism Resources for White People
Talking About Race in Mostly White Schools
Teaching African American Literature to White Students, by Joyce A. Joyce
Prioritizing Empathy and Anti-Racism in Schools
Anti-Racist Learning Resources
Racial Literacy: Key Terms
The Danger of a Single Story
Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy
How Shows Like ‘Will & Grace’ And ‘Black-ish’ Can Change Your Brain
SchoolJournalism Lessons: Encouraging Lightbulb Moments: ‘Single Stories’ and the Lack of Diversity in the Media
Beyoncé and Black History: Get in Formation