“It’s a classic,” they said. “According to who?” I asked.
One of the hardest things about being a Black girl in the American education system is the required reading. I’m not sure what’s worse, loving to read and being frustrated by all of the garbage they put in front of you, or hating to read and being frustrated by everything they put in front of you.
In high school, I was reading the likes of Judy Blume and other girl-centered, character-driven stories. I wasn’t worried about my Black author count back then, but I’m sure it was net zero. I read white-authored books.
I cannot recall reading any books by a Black author until I was in the 10th grade. The first Black book I read was by an African author, not an African-American one. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I had an African-American English teacher for World LIterature. Many of the other titles and authors from that year are lost to my memory except for that one, thanks to that teacher. This is only one of the handful of books I enjoyed during my high school career.
Other than that, in high school I enjoyed Beowulf—I got into some strange trance where I understood ancient English and thought the story was interesting; George Orwell’s1984, even though I never finished it; Lord of the Flies; and Catcher in the Rye. These stories have themes like social exclusion and censorship, two very real experiences for me in high school.)
Aside from this handful, I was miserable. Loving reading and my creative writing classes, but hating what I had to study to learn how to write.
I still wasn’t pining for books by Black authors at this point, though. In fact, if you had searched deep in my subconscious mind (probably not that deep, though), you would have learned I would have been embarrassed if you caught me reading a book with a Black person’s face on the cover. I felt that it wasn’t the normal thing to do. (Ain’t that some messed up stuff?) Someone way back when decided to keep the curriculum as white as possible and people like me never asked questions about where books by Black authors were.
However, I was feeling a disconnect, agony, and frustration with the whitewashed required reading. It was boring as F**** and had zero relevance to my life. As an aspiring poet, at that time, I did NOT look up to the lauded greats like Shakespeare, Frost, Whitman, Cummings and Keats etc. Emily Dickinson was my girl in my quest to getting as close to whiteness as I could.
My Junior year, I think we may have read the Narrative of the Life Frederick Douglass and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings but I didn’t like those books. I wasn’t glad to be reading “Black books.” They put too much of a spotlight on the contrasts between white people, and my experiences as a Black person (aka descendent from enslaved people and an ethic group who could not “get it together”—how I felt back then, anyway). Slavery, Civil Rights, Slavery, Civil Rights. That’s all I had as a Black person right? While important to know about, that sh*t gets old quick.
Black People Need Required Reading by Black Authors
Putting my former self-hate aside, let’s be honest, the required reading in high school (and some college courses), at least when I was there, was absolute trash. I don’t care what any English teacher says about how the likes of how Shakespeare and Mark Twain set the bar for everyone else. I pull out my authority of I-was-once-an-English-teacher-too to vehemently, and authoritatively disagree. Literature in America is not the 1950’s like Stepford Wives, a monochrome, gray world—the not real MAGA world some Americans are dreaming about. The nuance and color is missing.
Early on in the writing-personal-profiles-for-the-internet days (gosh I feel old), I remember other avid readers and aspiring authors claiming how much they loved the likes of the Bronte sisters and Shakespeare and remembering how much I wanted to vomit. Like, what was wrong with me I couldn’t get into all the “classics.” I never bothered to attempt reading Gone With the Wind even though people in my circles loved it. And working at a bookstore after college with other avid readers like myself, I never wanted to lay my hands on the stuff. I sided-eyed coworkers and withheld my two cents for fear of sounding like an ignorant English major.
I didn’t know why I felt that way back then, but I know now. Those books were never written for me to read.
If you love reading, but hate the required reading: acknowledge that it’s all garbage, it wasn’t written for you, and level up on using SparkNotes. But most importantly, find books that are for you.
I was a B average English student, and I made it through high school by reading spark notes. I did attempt to read the required reading and actually did read some chapters. And I was half-decent at writing papers and tests. My critical thinking was on point: those essay tests were my friends. But you don’t have to laud this revisionist, exclusionary, sexist, racist garbage.
You don’t have to like “the classics.” Old white guys decided they were the classics. Old white guys also decided on slavery, Jim Crow and Donald Trump. They decided to protect property over Black people. They decided on Capitalism: paying the hardest working people in the country as little as possible so they can line their fat pockets. They decided to have empty beach houses and skiing cabins over housing homeless children. Their decision making needs to be called into question.
Let go of what you are “supposed” to like according to the virtues of white society. (White society is wrong about a lot of things. They aren’t wrong about the importance of education. It’s just that the education they are giving you is trash and suits the needs of upholding white supremacy.)
Join a Black Book Club. Read Black authors. Read Black indie authors. Don’t be afraid of “Black stuff.”
Reading books by Black authors may be uncomfortable at first. Because all you may know about are those “current black issues” books or “civil rights” books. Even if society is still dealing with the same problems, those books don’t tell you about your life. They don’t teach you about friendship. They don’t illustrate the relationship you may have with your mom. Those books don’t make you feel strong or powerful. Those books don’t give you a mirror for yourself and your world.
I may be expressing an unpopular opinion here, but many of the Black “Classics” were mostly decided to be classics by white men anyway. They were published and popularized because they have safe narratives in our present times.
Many Black books required in schools aren’t empowering enough for us as Black folks to be revolutionary and make significant changes to how we deal with the system. Because if we felt like we could do anything—truly felt as powerful as the Black Panther—this system would come to its knees…
Recently I joined a book club hosted by Bookstagrammer @brisbookish. The B2Weird Bookclub. Join if you like Fantasy and Science Fiction. That power… that power is THERE. The empowered characters were there in our first book club read, The City We Became by NK Jemisin.
I recently had to name what books I wanted to read by POC authors and I came up short. I can name drop all of these white classics—that I hate—but I’m so ignorant of Black Authors. Especially Black science fiction and fantasy authors. It’s nice to branch out and read other stuff. It’s nice to feel empowered. It’s nice to see power flowing through Black veins.
What classics do you love? Hate? What books by Black authors should we read?