I’ve loved literature since I was a little girl. I was always eager for a new book, a new word, a new understanding, a new connection, a new… knowing. I’ve read about what happens to a dream deferred. I’ve read about southern trees that bore strange fruit. I’ve read about why the caged bird sings. Literature has taken me toward the warmth of other suns and dropped me off at the intersection of awareness and identity. In a world that has denied my humanity, literature has offered affirmation, consolation and direction.
Through literature, I grew to understand the world around me and my place in it. As a reader, I use Black literature as a tool to reclaim my humanity, my history and my future. As an educator, I present Black literature to readers as a tool for their own liberation. When we regard literature as liberation for Black students, we understand more fervently what’s at stake for their freedom.
According to Pen America, the last academic year saw a dramatic increase in the number of literary titles challenged under the guise of protecting children. As book bans reach an all-time high, it is no surprise to me that a great percentage of the books challenged or banned are books that have protagonists and prominent secondary characters of color at the center of the story.
Based on these findings, it is clear that the canon of Black literature – with all the opportunity for critical learning and student engagement – is and will be most impacted by these book bans. These bans and restrictions reinforce the suppression of voices that have long been marginalized and silenced in our society. As caregivers of the future, it is crucial that we are aware of what and who our country does not want our students to know and help them discover the truth of their history for themselves.
Reading While Black In America
Historically, we live in a country that made it unsafe for Black children to engage with the written word in any capacity. After the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion against slavery resulted in the murder of 55 white people, southern states raced to enact legislation that robbed Black people of the opportunity to read or write safely. Codified in historical documents such as Alabama Laws, 1832, legislation restricted Black people from consuming literature, particularly literature that aided them in their liberation and affirmed their humanity.
According to Nat Turner Project, when our U.S. government discovered Black literacy was directly linked to Black resistance against oppressive systems, it became costly to teach Black people to read and write, and then criminalized.
I first learned how the government weaponized literacy when I was a child. On a frigid December night while snowflakes congregated on our bedroom windowpane, my sister and I read Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. This book called to me on many occasions, especially when I would sneak into my sister’s room to immerse myself in her teenage, hip-hop world affair.
“Eeee-maaan….kuh…Dedra, what’s that word?” I asked, flustered and knowing that she knew.
“Emancipation,” she announced. The word flowed from her mouth as though it belonged to her – as though she could teach about its essence. I wanted to know about this twelve-letter, five-syllable word that made me stumble over its vowels and consonants but spoke directly to my spirit.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Yeah, what does that mean?”
Amused by my curiosity, my sister lovingly confirmed, “It means you’re free.”
After reading that book, I knew I wanted to learn the truth for myself first, then teach it to the students I teach so that they may discover what it means to be free.
Teaching While Black in America
I became an English language arts teacher to use the power of stories to reveal the resilience of the human spirit in the face of oppression. As an educator, I was trained to facilitate my students’ exploration of a story’s five elements: setting, character, plot, conflict and resolution. These elements present readers with a flawed world, flawed systems and flawed humans who must navigate the murky terrain of the human experience. In addition to these elements, I also felt it was important for students to be exposed to characters and protagonists of color. While my reading choices were welcomed by students in my classroom, I soon discovered that my curriculum was being questioned elsewhere.
In October 2018, my mother, my first teacher, passed away. At the time, I was a second-year Teach for America corps member and a fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts teacher in a predominantly Black school community. My class was reading the beginning chapters of one of my favorite books, Christopher Paul Curtis’ “The Watsons Go To Birmingham”, a historical fiction account of the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing on 16th Baptist Street Church that killed four Black girls. It was a book that I first read when I was in fifth grade; fifteen years later, I handed out copies of the book to my own class.
This book offered my students an opportunity to have a conversation far beyond the five elements of a story. They were safe to question, challenge, critique, demand, hold accountable, reflect, empathize and connect. Our classroom became a safe space to engage in critical conversations about identity…that is until it wasn’t.
It took one white woman, my assigned instructional coach, who admittedly felt overwhelmed by conversations regarding race, to disrupt the space we built. These books and the discussions I had with my students gave me the reputation of being a troublemaker, instigator, and insubordinate within my school community.
My coach from Teach for America was emailed about my conduct and warned, “If Ms. Watson wants a long-term career in education, she needs to learn her place.” At that moment, it appeared that white fragility determined who and what my students could read about. White fragility also determined that I would not be asked to return to teach another year at a school where I had established many meaningful relationships.
Black America, Black Literature and Black Liberation
Once I completed my two-year commitment with Teach for America, I returned home to Dayton, Ohio where I taught downtown at a charter school. My love for Black literature had not waned, and my passion for creating a liberatory experience for my students had not diminished. One could say that I had not yet “learned my place”, and after reviewing the reading list for my soon-to-be fifth-graders, I raised my concerns to the principal:
“Thank you for sharing the list of books that have been used in the past. All my students are Black, and I notice that none of the books listed feature a Black protagonist.”
I was unsure of how white fragility would rear its head in this new environment. I was not sure if using literature as a tool for liberation would earn me the same reputation I had in my previous school community. To my surprise, he said, “You’re right. What books do you have in mind?”
Surprised, I had anticipated resistance to my request for diversity and representation, and based on my lived and professional experience, my expectations are usually warranted. Fortunately, we had a school leader who was more invested in getting it right than being right. We had a school leader who understood the power of story and the necessity to take a multidimensional approach to select the text that allowed for considerations of critical literacy and cultural responsiveness.
Two months later, Mildred D. Taylor took us on a journey in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry“ a 1930s Mississippi coming-of-age story about a Black family’s survival and safety in America. In one chapter, Cassie, the main character, is expected to step off the sidewalk and into the road for Miz Lillian Jean, a white girl who is only a couple of years older than Cassie. When Cassie refuses what is an attempt to make her feel inferior, a white man grabs and twists her arm before pushing her into the road. He then publicly chastises her for learning her place in the world. Understandably, my students were shocked and appalled by this behavior. Although the setting is the 1930s Jim Crow South, many students were able to make a connection to this human experience. One student had an epiphany and processed aloud:
“Sometimes I feel like that in the store. Like I’ll move out the way because I don’t want to seem like I’m rude, but then sometimes I feel like I’m expected to move…and then I don’t want to move.”
It was important that my students could have these epiphanies, reflections, questions and criticisms without the shadow of white fragility lurking in the corners of our classroom. Although I had the support of school leadership and families, my literature selection was not immune from challenges outside the classroom.
We, Too, Sing America
One evening, I received a call from a parent who reassured me that her daughter loved our class, however, she worried that this particular book choice centered on race would make her daughter feel uncomfortable as the only white person in the room.
Had white fragility reared its head again? Would I have to “learn my place” and take the Logan family off the shelf of our classroom library? Would I have to center this mother’s feelings over my students’ yearning to read this story and disrupt their journey to connection, understanding, and knowing? Absolutely not.
As educators, we must tell the truth – to ourselves and then to our students. The truth is that knowing happens when white fragility is not present. The truth is that when we ban books and place restrictions on literature, we cower to the needs of the majority while the most vulnerable of us are threatened with violent erasure. The most vulnerable of us are told that our histories, stories and lived experiences are inappropriate, obscene and divisive. We, too, read and write America, and our stories matter in the quest for liberation.