Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Race and the Canon

I just finished Literature and Lives, and there is a chapter on the teaching of Huckleberry Finn, which is a staple of the high school English curriculum. The n-word as well as the treatment of African-Americans is a precarious subject in teaching the book, but important. I realized that To Kill a Mockingbird is not so far off, and it would be a disservice to my students if I simply focused on character development, etc.

One of the biggest points of discussion would be that these novels are written by white people with a white adolescent protagonist. What if the novel were written from another perspective?

One of the things about discussing something as sensitive as race (and the use of the n-word (and how we can't simply excuse Twain for using the word "because it was used a lot back then" because he knew what he was doing and he knew that it was hateful)) is the dynamic of the classroom. If I remember correctly, my 10B class will have one black student in there. I don't want that person to be put on the spot or feel like he needs to be representative of all African-Americans. Of course, I doubt if my students will say, "X, what do you think of this as a black person?" I'd be happy to have him put in his thoughts and such, but I don't want him to think that he should be put on the spot because of his pigmentation. On the other hand, in some ways I feel like I ought to talk to him about how he might feel reading a book that has this word in it and the discussions of race that it does. I know that I had a lot of trouble reading the play Bent in my GLBT Literature: Out on Stage class. Of course, a great deal of the class was also a member of the GLBT community, so it was a "safe" environment; if I had been the only one, I think it would have been a different experience.

One of the things I hope to do to ease some of this tension and pressure is to teach a few pieces that are from the African-American perspective. A black writer, writing about the 1930s-ish (post-slavery, pre-Civil Rights) experiences. Here are a few ideas:

~James Baldwin (Go Tell it On the Mountain is a great collection of short stories)
~Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (one of my favorite books and it's going to be a film with Halle Barry as Janie)
~Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
~something by Richard Wright
~The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks (has young adult protagonist, is partly autobio)
~The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (play, which makes it a faster read)

If anyone reading this blog has any ideas, please let me know.

One of the moments I highlighted in the Lit and Lives text was how teachers often select texts that are "safe"--where we don't have to face these delicate issues head-on. I feel like it's urgent for me to bring these issues to light in my classroom, but I wonder if I am strong enough. I remember shaking when I spoke up about the use of the word "fag" in the Crosswinds classroom (and had Mandy do most of the talking). And what's the difference if I belong to that cultural group or not? Does it change the level of being upset? I would be the one bringing up these issues too--not having to address an issue a student brought up somehow. I feel like I would be asking for it--but isn't that the point? How many of my comfort levels to I have to push in order to be a good teacher? How much will my guard drop when I become more experienced?

There was a moment in Lit and Lives that really rattled me. It came from good intentions, however, and I want to emphasize that I recongize that. One chapter discusses a lesson plan about the story "Am I Blue?" The teacher gave some students entering her room blue triangles to wear. A louder student wanted to have more, so he collected some from other students, not knowing what it meant. They read the short story about a gay boy who is beaten up and a "fairy godfather" comes to grant a request. The boy asks that everyone who is gay be blue so he could recognize them. What results is that all people are some shade of blue--be it faint or blaring. Some students tossed the triangles to the middle of the room when they found out what it meant and discussion ensued. To me, this is a great lesson plan and some version of this should be taught--confronting the homophobia in classrooms, etc. (I would personally have a pretty hard time teaching a lesson plan on this topic, but I also think it would be good coming from a GLBT teacher.) The problem I had with his text was when he talked about how much fun the kids had reading it out loud and how one student read the role of the fairy godmother/father in a "swishy voice" to the laughter of the class. He didn't follow that up with the fact that that was offensive--overtly cruel and should have at least been taken note of in Carey-Webb's text. And I know that students don't always realize how hurtful some things can be, but it would be important to point things like this out and discuss them with the students. Why do you think that's funny? Who do you think might be hurt? Etc. And our instructor pointed out that it's important to recognize the cues in the text; if there are no cues that a character speaks a certain way, then we're putting our own stereotypes onto a character (we then talked a little about A Raisin in the Sun and how strange it would be to read the dialogue in an even tone but how wrong it could sound too).

Anyway, these are my thoughts before I go to bed. Yep, I should be asleep by 10:30, which is awesome in my goal-to-have-a-more-teacherly-schedule (which means in bed by eleven and up by six, though it's so hard when you're so used to reading until one and sleeping until nine. Really, two hours does make a difference, especially when you work until after 11:30 some nights!).

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