Education Opinion

Coloring Books

By Wayne M. Joseph — August 01, 1998 5 min read
A piece of literature shouldn’t be judged by the race of its author but by the merit of its message.

Twenty-five years ago, as an undergraduate student, I asked one of my professors whether I should pursue a degree in black studies. I was majoring in literature at the time, but my interest resided specifically in the works of black authors. Without the slightest hesitation, the professor, who happened to be black, responded that literary works are colorless--they are either well-written or poorly written. After all, he chastened me, no one called Ernest Hemingway a great “white” writer.

That answer dissuaded me from pursuing a different major and forever changed my way of thinking about literature. I recalled this conversation during last spring’s national uproar over the move by the San Francisco school board to mandate that the majority of the district’s required-reading books be written by nonwhite authors. Originally, two black board members proposed that seven of a high school student’s 10 required books be written by minority authors. But eventually, the board rejected such a quota and voted unanimously instead to require that books be selected from a “list of writers of color which reflects the diversity of culture, race, and class of the district’s student body.”

Unfortunately, this kind of misguided thinking is not new. It was conceived in our universities during the ‘60s when departments for black and Chicano studies began popping up across the college terrain in the name of “diversity.” Such multicultural plans aimed to bring more blacks and Hispanics into existing literature and history courses, but it backfired: Because students now had a place to go for “ethnic” studies, professors outside these newly formed departments found it easier to exclude minority authors and works from their curricula. Diversity had been mandated in the universities, but instead, a new form of segregation was born.

Thirty years later, in the wake of the San Francisco debate, we are hearing similar rhetoric touting the benefits of asking teachers and students to mentally segregate writers by race instead of viewing Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Cisneros as gifted writers who have captured the American experience. It is clear that advocates of such diversity are not students of history. If they were, they would know that one of the pitfalls of assigning literature based solely on race is that some writers are inevitably scorned as not “black enough.” In the 1960s, Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, a book considered
by many scholars to be the country’s most important post-World War II novel, was called an “Uncle Tom” by an angry
black student at Oberlin College during a speech on American culture. Similarly, Richard
Rodriguez has been labeled a “sellout” by other Hispanics who disagree with his views. Yet any well-rounded American literature course would have to include these two writers.

The focus must always be on a work’s quality, not on a system that forces students to pigeonhole authors.

More surprising, however, is the way diversity proponents trivialize nonwhite students, assuming they don’t possess the mental or emotional ability to appreciate the works of white authors--even the greats, such as Tennessee Williams or Emily Dickinson--and can only respond to works written by authors of their own ethnic background. This belief is not only misguided but also borders on the kind of racial paranoia usually associated with the most virulent racist organizations. By alleging that each race has its own specific, clearly delineated tendencies that distinguish it from other races, well-intentioned proponents have adopted the same specious, racial ideology historically used to discriminate against blacks, Jews, American Indians, and Asians.

Following the diversity argument to its absurd conclusion, black adolescents couldn’t possibly relate to Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s angst-ridden teenager in Catcher in the Rye, because the author and main character are white. Nor could nonwhite students respond to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, despite the universality of Jean Valjean’s plight. Rather, teachers of black students would have better luck with Giovanni’s Room, a novel whose author, James Baldwin, is black but whose story is void of a single adolescent or black character.

Inevitably, the study of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Hemingway is labeled “Eurocentric,” a trite, oversimplified term designed to make white educators feel guilty. Such criticism, however, fails to realize the interconnectedness of all literature. In a 1970 Time magazine article, Ralph Ellison noted this as he explored how American culture might have developed without black influences. Mark Twain, he argued, celebrated the flexibility, musicality, and rhythms of the black spoken idiom in Huckleberry Finn. "[W]ithout the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it. . . .In other words, had there been no blacks, certain creative tensions arising from the cross purposes of whites and blacks would also not have existed. Not only would there have been no Faulkner; there would have been no Stephen Crane, who found certain basic themes . . . in the Civil War. There also would have been no Hemingway, who took Crane as his source and guide.”

It is impossible to separate the experiences of any American writer from the influences of the American landscape. However, we are expected to believe minority writers are immune from the American experience and that their experiences are substantively exclusive.

As a principal at both the junior high and high school levels for the past 13 years, I have examined many English textbooks. Over the years, publishers have included many more minority and women writers, realizing that a well-rounded literary curriculum should feature authors from varying backgrounds. But the main focus must always be the quality of the work, not a system that forces students to place authors and their efforts in separate compartments. To divide literature in that way misleads students about the true nature of literature. Literature is organic, flowing from one writer to the next, with the influences of Dostoevski clearly seen in Ellison, the effects of Henry James evident in the works of James Baldwin.

Twenty-five years ago, I learned as an undergraduate student that great literature strikes a chord in the human breast. Whether it angers, brings a smile to the lips, or makes one see a different point of view, its power and conviction changes a reader forever, regardless of the heritage, gender, or sexual persuasion of the author. Hopefully, there are a few educators left who feel the same way.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Coloring Books