We need to teach more Black literature in Catholic schools

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The first book that ever knocked me back into my own un-knowing was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. More than any other character I can recall from reading during my youth, I admired and rooted for Ellison’s unnamed main character. I can’t pretend I had the internal language or social comprehension to identify it then, but reading Invisible Man was my first felt experience, albeit vicarious, of systemic racism.

After George Floyd was murdered, when millions across the country protested, among the many signs marchers held, I often noticed the one saying, “Silence is violence,” which can only be interpreted as a call to action. All rational discourse depends on entering a conversation by listening, and if we are really listening to our social reality, we have to ask ourselves, as English teachers, department chairs and administrators at Catholic schools: When we look at the booklists in the courses we offer, what do they say? How many of them have the potential to knock our white students back into their own un-knowing about race?

If we are really listening to our social reality and have the courage to allow it to enter our classrooms, if we are really sincere about the mission statements on our websites, then the authenticity and integrity of our missions implore us to include more voices from Black literature in the English classrooms of our Catholic schools.

The authenticity and integrity of our missions implore us to include more voices from Black literature in the English classrooms of our Catholic schools.

Because 72 percent of all students in Catholic schools and 87 percent of their teachers are white, white teachers must embrace the associated discomfort and fear that racial issues often bring, and present these texts to students with as much courage and sensitivity as we can muster.

The colleagues I have admired most over my career are the ones who are continually open to their own growth. They keep growing into their potential. If we want our students to develop a similar growth mind-set, shouldn’t we strive for the same mind-set ourselves?

I do not pretend to be an arbiter of “wokeness.” I know I need to be a better, more culturally responsive teacher. But it is not up to the oppressed to enlighten the empowered to make changes. It is not up to the directors of diversity or the deans of mission and identity to rouse us to attention through sessions of professional development, nor is it up to the 13 percent of our faculty members who are people of color.

If we can accept the validity of our social reality as a core text in our classrooms, and if teachers of English can embrace the distinctive opportunities to create felt experiences for young people through the wide-ranging emotional experiences of reading and listening to gifted storytellers, then we are compelled by our vocations to make sure more voices of Black literature speak in our curricula.

Black literature can be a pathway for students to experience an internal freedom from the falsehoods about race with which they are bombarded every day. 

So much of Black literature cries out for readers to attend to the historical and contemporary instances where the lives of Black people did not matter. Black literature can be a pathway for students to experience an internal freedom from the falsehoods about race with which they are bombarded every day. 

In an article for the journal Urban Education, Patrick Roz Camangian contends that for students of color, “engaging readings that help students demystify their oppression is important for students to have concrete, historical ways to explain their current condition as oppressed people.” The results can be a “deeper investment in the academic process of reading, analyzing, and writing.”

Iconic texts that confront racial injustice are already present in most classrooms, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I’m not arguing for their removal or replacement. But how about providing as a companion to Huck’s journey the journey of Cora from Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, to name just one example. The problem with not having more black voices represented in our booklists is the same problem the Rev. Bryan Massingale sees, historically, in the Catholic Church’s attempts at addressing racial injustice.  “Catholic teaching on race in America has neglected or slighted an essential step in social reflection,” Massingale writes in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, “namely listening to the voices of the victims and examining the situation from their perspective."

Incorporating more Black voices can address the perceived otherness between races and at the same time reach toward our shared humanity, our imago Dei, one of the most basic principles of Christianity.

Incorporating more Black voices can address the perceived otherness between races and at the same time reach toward our shared humanity, our imago Dei, one of the most basic principles of Christianity, that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. The anguish in Black literature can bind us to the core of our humanity, which right now demands we get closer to the “soft flesh of these black bodies” we see dying on our screens, writes Mario Powell, S.J., in America. While white teachers and students can close their books about racial injustice and “withdraw to their daily concerns,” Powell asserts that Black America “cannot withdraw from this painful cycle.”

But let us take heart, fellow teachers, literally, from Parker J. Palmer’s contention in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, that weaving connections is in our nature: “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” These connections “made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts—meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.”

But our hearts also know that throwing a book into our curriculum by a Black author is not enough. Our teaching philosophy needs to strive toward using a student’s social reality to reach an otherwise oppressed group. It needs to honor a student’s lived experiences and enhance access to course material.

Whatever understandable trepidation we might have about addressing race in our classrooms in 2020, let us be more afraid that our Black students look at the readings we assign and do not see themselves. Let us be more afraid the marginalized, underserved and oppressed students might feel unseen or, like Ralph Ellison’s famous character, invisible.

We need to allow our developed capacity for connectedness to live in our work. Let us give our best teaching selves a chance to thrive this year by empowering students of color. Let us give our white students more cross-racial opportunities to listen and learn. More than at any other time in our careers, with our country swirling in health, financial and social crises, our students need our authenticity.

A dozen Black literature books to consider including in your classroom this year:

  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  • How to Make a Slave: And Other Essays, by Jerald Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
  • The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
  • Long Division, by Kiese Laymon
  • White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
  • Love’s Long Line, by Sophronia Scott
  • Train Whistle Guitar, by Albert Murray

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