Is Required Reading in Our Schools Sending the Wrong Message?

What I referred to as “English” class is now called “Literary Arts” in many school districts. No matter the nomenclature, the required reading does not appear to deviate beyond the norm. By the norm, I am referring to mainstream literature that has been labeled as “classic” within the world of publishing. Our students are reading an array of literary works that are not only noteworthy, they give profound insight into the history, and culture of the times in which the novel was written.

I am talking about works by icons in literature like Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, Charles  Dickens, Emily Dickenson, and the Bronte sisters. Few and far between are works by authors of color. And those works generally involve topics surrounding challenges specific to that particular culture.

kelly-sikkema-172068Don’t get me wrong, I read I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,  Native Son, and Coldest Winter Ever multiple times. But I also read the Taming of the Shrew, The Telltale Heart, and the Odyssey more than once, too. Where the difference came in is when the works I read were based on Eurocentric stories offering a broader perspective of the diversity, capabilities, and potentials of the people. Stories where the outcomes were more postive than those represented in the readings that are Afrocentric.

I don’t remember reading anything that was written by an Hispanic or Latino author. I have read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and found it extremely compelling, but at the same time disturbing. Disturbing because, as a teacher, I have seen many Native American students struggle to maintain their identity in schools where they are a distinct minority. Furthermore, even though the outcome for Alexie was fruitful, the same is not true for many of our country’s original settlers.

prasanna-kumar-223903The same issues abound in African American literature. There is usually one book about a person of color represented amongst the others that is required reading. But I have yet to see a novel that does not speak to slavery, the urban struggle, suppression or oppression. I have many students who complain they are tired of reading about the struggle. Or as one black female student commented on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, “We don’t read what they assign us in class because it’s boring. Who wants to read about some old black lady trying to be young?” Another Hispanic student followed that up by saying, “Yeah, we wanna to read about people who look like us and act like us, and are doing extraordinary things.”

That is the reason I wrote Immersion. I was looking to bridge the gap that is present in the required reading in our schools. Immersion’s theme involves science, diversity in culture, religion and race. It grapples with family issues. The main characters are African American females of Haitian descent who have been exposed to the Vudoun practices of that culture in productive and unusual ways. And using this to their advantage, the two sisters, who have never met, must find a way to come together to maitain the intergallactic balance between order and chaos. As for the baobab tree on the cover; that represents that Tree of Life, where the family’s ancestral spirits reside.

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This is what our youth are looking for. Topics such as these offer opportunities to stretch one’s imagination, and broaden our understanding of the world and galaxy we live in. It looks to the future with hope and optimism, much like Millennials do today; the same Millennials and Net Geners who say they are tired of reading about the urban struggle, slavery, oppression, and victims of failed immigration policies. They want to read about a brighter future where the universe is ours to explore and embrace, with main characters who look and act like them.

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