Literature, Antiracism, and the Dangers of the Single Story

Jennifer D. Klein
“Stories matter.  Many stories matter.  Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”  

 --Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I’ve been watching the discussion grow online around the teaching of literature in an antiracist context, and in particular a growing polemic about whether we should teach works which include the overt and subtle signs and signals of White privilege and oppression, such as those found in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  As an educator who spent 19 years teaching high school English, I feel obliged to jump into the conversation.  I don’t believe that the question is whether or not we should teach these works, but how we teach them that is the real question.  I believe that the antiracist, global classroom has the responsibility to include works from as many perspectives as possible, inviting students to view the world and their own communities from various lenses that allow them, ultimately, to better understand all of them: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  

The question of whether or not we should read a given book based on its content is not a new one for literature teachers.  Throughout the history of our field, we have always had to ask ourselves and each other which works best capture a given set of ideas and moment in history. Whether we are disputing the importance of Joseph Conrad’s work, which is filled with diminishing and colonialist thinking about the myriad cultures of Africa, or the depiction of Black characters Mark Twain’s fiction, literature teachers have always been aware of this challenge.  Take it a step further:  Can we read the work of T.S. Eliot (and enjoy the musical “Cats”) even though he was an overt fascist who wrote and spoke in support of Hitler’s Final Solution?  Can we read works by authors we disagree with or storylines that make us uncomfortable because they contain ideas that challenge a given social norm? These are important questions for us to pose to our students, certainly.  But history has shown us that these questions are a slippery slope that end, quite easily, in the banning of books and the silencing of perspectives. It starts with questioning To Kill a Mockingbird and ends in removing Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart for its depiction of racism in Nigeria.  It ends in the removal of Gabriel García Marquez’s work from Latin American classrooms because he was a socialist who was friends with Fidel Castro.  And the end result, if it’s the removal of a text, is more dangerous than we might believe.  To be clear, I can love Eliot's Four Quartets while simultaneously hating what he stood for as a human.

We know that some literary perspectives are broadly considered more acceptable in our classrooms, and we do need to push that comfort zone and really understand why we’ve fallen into these patterns.  When I was doing deep work around bringing Palestinian perspectives to U.S.classrooms, for example, I found that The Diary of Anne Frank is taught all over the world as a seminal text, as I agree it should be, but that Arab literature in general—and Palestinian voices in particular—are completely absent.  I became obsessed with collecting global reading lists from a variety of sources, concerned that teachers needed to assure the inclusion of a wider variety of voices and experiences.  And I became increasingly concerned about how to ensure that educators were allowed to push beyond the traditional curriculum, which is certainly dominated by White authors in the United States, to include work that would push those traditions and invite harder intercultural work.  

In a more global context, the same rule of variety is key: our classroom reading, if it contains the voices of the colonizers, must naturally include the voices of those who were colonized as well. If it contains the voices of a dominant culture, it should also include the voices of marginalized cultures.  And we should consider prioritizing voices native to a given place or time, rather than the voices of outsiders who are trying to capture—and perhaps misrepresenting or even misappropriating, however unintentionally—the experiences of a culture other than their own.  I remember the moment I realized that much of the literature I was exposed to in college, when it came to “global” literature, was written by White Americans and Europeans who had perhaps visited but never lived a given reality in a given place, at least not without a passport that could get them out of a bad situation instantly.  And while I remember loving Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), it was dismaying to discover, years later, that she wrote from a privileged perspective that did not reflect the native African experience.  Again, I don’t think the book should have been removed from my college curriculum, as it was a beautiful memoir that did capture Blixen's own lived experience.  But it should have been taught alongside the literature of authors who were native to the region she lived in.

I remain convinced that the literature classroom is an ideal place for the brave conversations and difficult comparisons of experience that our students need in order to gain a pluralistic, informed view of “reality”from a wide array of perspectives.  That means not removing problematic texts, but teaching them in the context of their problems and complexities, alongside works that offer other perspectives.  It means teaching students to recognize and deconstruct racism, sexism, and all the identity- and politically-based “isms” of our times in everything they read. It means teaching students to honor perspectives and experiences, and to recognize where and why a given perspective has become dangerous or signals something we need to learn from our history. And it means setting our teachers up for success by teaching them how to handle courageous conversations in the classroom.

The classroom formula for achieving this is all about variety, about doing as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests and moving beyond the “Danger of the Single Story” to foster a varied and pluralistic world view.  Literature teachers with the ability to choose some or all of their own reading materials can surround any given “traditional” novel study with works from other perspectives. Those works should connect to the central novel somehow in terms of shared context, experience or time period.  They should offer storylines which are different enough to ensure students see any given topic from myriad perspectives.  We can also pair or otherwise group novels in creative ways, so that each novel study includes a variety of perspectives.  Teachers who use choice reading can reduce conflict and increase engagement by allowing students to choose their own reading pathway and share their learning with the class through literature circles and other strategies.  Ultimately, we know how important it is that all young people grow up seeing characters who are like them, as well as learning about the experiences of their peers. In the United States, that means making sure our book lists include Black, Latino, and Asian voices, in addition to the White voices we’ve always taught, and making sure that students have opportunities to connect to those storylines in personal ways.  

Because I was lucky enough to be raised in student-centered experiential schools, I want to share how I was taught To Kill a Mockingbird in my junior year at the Jefferson County Open Living High School in Colorado.  I was exposed to the novel in connection to an expedition to Florida that took us, a group of 25 students and five teachers, across the American South in early 1985.  The trip, which lasted three weeks, included students of all ages and a curriculum focused on learning goals in social studies, science, mathematics, music, English, and an assortment of life skills; all in the real-world context of planning and implementing a learning expedition. We read the novel before departing Denver, and we generated lists of questions the storyline brought up, questions about race and equality and life in the South that our travels would allow us to answer from the lived experiences of the people we met along the way.

We drove from Denver to Dallas, to New Orleans, to the Okefenokee Swamp, to the Everglades, and finally to Crystal River, Florida, where we swam with the manatees before returning to Denver.  Along the way, we slept on church floors and in visitor centers, learned about jazz and the blues, engaged with flora and fauna in the ecosystems we were studying and, most importantly, heard the stories of people of color along the way.  We got to lead interviews with local residents and community leaders across the South, to ask them hard questions, and to unpack, understand and honor their experiences.  Every conversation answered a few questions and raised some new ones.  I often wish my teachers had included Their Eyes Were Watching God alongside Harper Lee, to ensure that a Black Southern voice was as deeply explored in contrast. However, I remember reading Zora Neale Hurston in college and recognizing the voice and stories contained there because I really had been exposed through the lived experiences I heard in those interviews at 16.  And I still have a deep and expansive love for Black jazz that was ignited in Preservation Hall during our time in New Orleans.

We are at a turning point in education, and I encourage educators to make careful choices in the service of fostering pluralistic thinkers and thoughtful leaders.  We need a generation of young people who can honor the experiences of others, even if the resulting world view clashes with their own. We need a generation of young people who know that no story is the whole story, and who seek out the unseen experiences and differing perspectives behind every novel, every headline, and every post on social media.  Really, it’s not about stifling or shutting out any given perspective; it’s about building students’ curiosity, and the inquiry and critical thinking skills they need to see beyond the Single Story.

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