by Christopher Paslay
NOTE: This article was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 22, 2006.
The students I teach are growing up in a world where race seem less of a pressing issue than ever before. Billionaires can be black (BET founder Robert Johnson), rappers can be white (Eminem), and top golfers can be a little of everything (Tiger Woods). That’s why I find teaching African American literature a challenge: Many kids just aren’t as obsessed by skin color as previous generations.
Discussing books such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, or Booker T. Washington‘s Up From Slavery can make students—both black and white—quite uncomfortable. So can more modern texts, such as The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, with its segregated, southern backdrop.
With much of its content focusing on race, bigotry and hardship, black literature has the tendency to rip the blinders off students’ eyes, bringing them face-to-face with the harsh realities of America‘s past. It is a world their parents or grandparents may have known, but that is new, and often disturbing, to them.
Of course, there is a flip side to African American literature. There are uplifting tales about triumph and survival—those things that unite us and make us human. Writer Toni Morrison has a body of work that transcends race and color, as do authors Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. Then, there are black writers whose work centers on individuals, rather than members of a group. Names such as William Melvin Kelly, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Dudley Randall come to mind.
But teaching African American literature is still challenging, and the subject matter should not be taken lightly, particularly when it comes to more militant writers such as Malcolm X or Amiri Baraka, who preach black power and rejecting the American establishment. Analyzing such work can be tricky business. It must be done thoughtfully so as not to promote resentment in white students or patronize black ones.
Black literature is an incredibly unique and sensitive genre. The minute you delve into it, you lose your innocence. Although many of its themes are about love and compassion, it still can be politically charged. There’s something there that says, Let’s look at all the issues involved with race. Let’s look at all the ways people of color have been disrespected in America.
That’s what’s so hard to address in a high school setting, especially one that is culturally diverse, as the Philadelphia schools are.
When race is the central issue of a work (and it is central to most African American literature), I can see the uneasy expressions on some of my students’ faces and hear the uncomfortable shuffling as they squirm at their desks. Every so often one of them will say: Why are we doing this stuff today?
I pause and explain that we must study work from a diverse group of authors. I tell them that we study African American literature because it’s important to become aware of our own differences so we can understand them, so we can tolerate them, so we can celebrate them.
Race relations have a come a long way in the last 50 years. The hip-hop culture, along with the diversity that comes from living in a metropolitan city, has helped many teenagers look past a person’s skin color. But prejudice and bigotry still exist.
Although many of my students consider themselves color-blind within the confines of their own environments, eventually they’re going to be hit with the realities of opposing viewpoints and, ultimately, racism. When this happens, they must be prepared to deal with it in an insightful and non-violent manner.
African American literature is a very complex genre. Its body of work is broad and thought-provoking. And it must be taught with great care.