I remember sitting in my high school English class with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in my hands at the beginning of the year. Morrison’s novel is beautifully written with such impactful imagery and poignant racial critiques. The Bluest Eye is the first literary work of fiction written by an African American woman that I ever read from beginning to end. Once we finished Morrison’s novel, we moved on to Richard Wright’s Native Son – another captivating literary work written by a brilliant African American author that I read from start to finish. Once finished with Wright’s novel, we began to read another classic novel written by an African American Female writer – Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. By this point, we were almost done with our first semester, and each novel we had read was a novel written by an African American author.
I truly enjoyed reading books written by women and men of color. It exposed me to racial issues that I had not previously been consciously aware of, and looking back at it, our curriculum was–surprisingly–very inclusive of minority writers. Nevertheless, I was affected by a pressing question: why were we only reading novels written by African American authors? As progressive as it is, I was uncomfortable with being taught by a white teacher about novels written by authors of color. I felt patronized most of the time, and the lack of novels written by classic European white authors, and Native American authors made me feel deprived of a truly diverse body of literature. I also felt uncomfortable knowing that I would be heading to university with a limited amount of knowledge about the classic Western literary canon. Still, I pressed on, reading Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I graduated high school, began attending university, and one of my first lectures consisted of discussing the life of German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. I was sitting in my class, filled with 45 white students and a few students of color, feeling as embarrassed as could be about not knowing who Kant was. Most of the class was adding to the lecture in the form of questions, comments, and insights, while I was sitting at my desk feeling intimidated and lost. It was at this moment that I wished I had been taught the classic works of European philosophy writers and a wider literary body as a whole. It would have helped my self-confidence if I had even learned the names of classic authors and thinkers so that I would know to, at the very least, nod at the mention of their names.
I am happy that I was exposed to great African American and Latinx authors in high school, and I believe that these authors should continue to hold a prominent place in the classroom. I also believe that it is important for students of color to be taught the basics of the classic Western literary canon along with other literary bodies. If we, as people of color, are to compete at a global level, we must be made aware of basic cultural works. We should learn about Western philosophies, Eastern philosophies, Native American philosophies, and other relevant works. Also, we should be looking for patterns in all of these philosophies and works of literature. There could be lessons on the commonalities and differences. If we expose students to a wide variety of literature and ideas, including the traditional Western classics, they will be much more confident in their cultural knowledge, and will thereby be motivated to add to an academic discussion rather than shy away.
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