When thinking about diversifying the canon and providing our students with a larger selection of texts that reflect a more holistic approach to studying racial identity, there is a common pitfall to avoid. Very often, when educators, particularly White educators, attempt to select texts that will have more resonance with their Black or Brown students, they often reveal their own implicit biases and assumptions. I know this because I’ve made this mistake countless times. When trying to find texts that I thought would connect with my non-White students, I invariably chose texts that placed Black characters in impoverished settings and positions of affliction with a lack of agency, classic texts like Richard Wright’s Native Son or contemporary texts like Buck by M.K. Asante. As impressive as these texts are, and as appropriate as they can be, I soon learned the danger of making these types of books the only representation of the non-White voice. We cannot understate the danger to a student’s psyche when the only representation of themselves in literature is a slave named Jim, a murderer like Bigger Thomas, or a powerless child named Pecola.
When we choose texts with our students of color in mind, we need to acknowledge the diversity of identities within such communities. Contrary to our entrenched biases, not all of our students of color can connect to poverty and crime. To assume so is simply racist. Our students of color have interests and experiences as diversified as any other student community. As such, when I choose texts for my students, I make sure to think of the impressive uniqueness of my students. I know some will undoubtedly relish the experience of reading texts that mirror their quintessentially urban experience, but I also know that many of my students are equally thrilled with the windows provided by science-fiction, fantasy, or dystopian novels. I know that while some of my students will feel a deep connection with the power of Malcolm X’s Autobiography, others will feel a deeper connection with the relative de-emphasis of race in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The point is that when teachers, particularly White teachers, select texts for their students of color, they need to break out of the tired, lazy, and inherently racist choices.