Whose Stories Do We Value: Revising an American Literature Course Through the Lens of Antiracism
Our reflection is framed by quotes from The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, our summer reading for our American Voices course, modeling how we use literature to engage in discussions of contemporary American conversations.
“The world may be mean, but people don't have to be, not if they refuse.”
Last week, our dear colleague Rachel Davies reflected on her role as a white educator and language teacher at an all-girls independent school during a time in which words have either failed us or conveniently escaped us. As Rachel says, “As a white woman with authority over a classroom, I have been allowed to not hear the pain of other members of my community. Unhearing, I have caused harm with my language... Not only were we as a country failing at talking to and hearing each other, we and I had been failing for a long time. I came to see our failures of community as failures of communication – failures of language.”
Rachel’s meditation on collective healing through developing a shared classroom vernacular for difficult words brings us to the crossroads of concern, where we, as white educators, find ourselves in our American literature classrooms. Three years ago, when we changed the title of our junior level American literature course to “American Voices,” we did so with the intention to expand, complicate, and identify who are the American voices today, and how literature and the words of these voices can change our understanding of the American story. However, in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans at the hands of police, we now confront another American voice demanding that we no longer use our privilege as cover while we wade around the edges of discussions of race and racism in our classrooms.
“If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.”
During the early process of reimagining our course a few years ago, we stumbled upon the website #DisruptTexts, a movement begun in 2018 by four English teachers seeking to create a more inclusive and equitable English classroom. Their mission, as outlined on their website, is centered on four core principles: (1) the self-examination of our biases as teachers, considering how these inevitable biases inform our pedagogy; (2) the centering of BIPOC voices in literature curriculum as a way to establish necessary counternarratives to white supremacy; (3) the application of a critical lens to our texts, asking students to question any one single interpretive reading; and (4) the necessity of working in a community with other antiracist educators, as this tough work cannot be done in isolation.
So much of the #DisruptTexts philosophy resonates with our own—especially the recognition that we cannot do this work alone. At the beginning of the school year, our English Department established a departmental goal that places this antiracist work at the forefront: How might we continue to review and revise our curriculum in order to challenge the cultural and systemic roots of prejudice and injustice, amplify voices from different perspectives of the human experience, and build trust so that all students feel included, understood, and valued? In our own individual ways, we have been working together towards this collective goal; continuing to re-envision this American Literature is just one part of the larger puzzle.
It is our responsibility as educators with white privilege to unlearn the whitewashed history taught to us in classes as we grew up and instead redefine and examine the assumptive certainty of sacred American concepts such as freedom, liberty, and justice for all. As literature teachers, we know that our texts, if intentionally chosen, can offer a unique portal into conversations that our students are desperate and ready to have, and in order to explore the American voice in literature we also must explore and interrogate race, privilege, and violence against communities of color. However, one of the most difficult questions we have asked ourselves on this journey is: do we know enough about racism as white teachers to actually guide student learning about racism?
To quote Anne Lamott in 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing: “Yikes, and wow.”
“Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.”
It would be an understatement to say we will never feel prepared, knowledgeable, or qualified to speak on the experience of racism. So what happens now that we have admitted this? Lucky for us, as white educators, we could look the other way, carry on, continue teaching the same texts, and not confront our own fears, because the larger American community would be accustomed to this response. The truth is, some people might even prefer it.
Through the guidance of Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students by Carlin Borsheim-Black and Sophia Tatiana Sargianides, we are pushing ourselves to ask more of our American Voices curriculum by intentionally developing anti-racism competencies and standards for our writing and reading study. Beyond reading texts from multiple points of view or from authors of diverse backgrounds, we want to give our students the tools and, as Rachel discussed last week, the language to navigate the pain of our shared American legacy of slavery and racism.
What follows is a brief overview of our course, documenting some of our process as we seek to provide our students with these critical antiracist tools. In the words of those leading “Designing for Equity,” a course we recently took through the Global Online Academy (GOA): “We are deliberate amateurs in this work.” In other words, our hope is to share, not to instruct; we are aware that gaps and biases still remain, an awareness that compels us to keep learning and redesigning our course.
Using Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad as our summer read immediately centers a counternarrative to the conventional stories told about America’s past and sets up essential questions like: Whose American stories do we value, and why? Who counts as American? In order to bring the protagonist Cora’s past into our students’ present, we ask them to respond to a current voice on race in the United States, relying on their knowledge of Cora and her voice. This year, many of our students responded to Ibram X. Kendi’s June 2020 article in The Atlantic, “The American Nightmare”; by responding to Kendi through the lens of Cora, students began the process of recognizing how literature engages with contemporary American public conversations, a connection that will continue to frame much of our reading throughout the course.
The next major texts we read are The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun, a pairing that prevents Gatsby from becoming synonymous with the American Dream and allows us to more fully address some of Gatsby’s problematic elements, namely its relatively narrow view on what it means to be American: white and male. Placed together, the texts offer a richer understanding of the myths of American meritocracy and the systemic forces that keep both Jay Gatsby and Walter Younger from fully realizing success. While our Gatsby essay has a more traditional literary analysis focus, students develop their own essay questions, which has led to some rather incredible antibias/antiracist readings, including but not limited to Nick’s possible queerness and Fitzgerald’s--or Nick’s--implicit racial bias. For Raisin, students respond more creatively, selecting a quote or passage from the play and connecting it to their lives in the form of a poem, a monologue, or a scene from their own play, personally connecting to one of the play’s central themes.
In our research unit, the Citizen Rhetor Project, students no longer analyze how authors engage with the American public conversation; rather, they become those authors, crafting arguments about a contemporary issue of importance to them. As Megan documented in an earlier post, the unit begins with students selecting from a short list of contemporary memoirs that explore a range of topics in the public conversation, including but not limited to immigration, environmentalism, race and racism. It is in this unit where Rachel’s Community Vernacular work pays off, as students feel more comfortable using the necessary language to grapple with some rather difficult and messy questions.
Concluding the year with The House on Mango Street allows our student writers to step into the point of view of Esperanza Cordero and study her deeply personal and rich vignettes that describe characters and conflicts unique to her coming of age as a Latina writer in Chicago. After doing some creative writing using Esperanza’s vignettes as mentor texts, we ask the students to use their preparation from a year studying various American voices and finally step into their own voice, writing a personal narrative which ultimately can become their college essay.
In considering texts for the next school year, we are guided in part by Lee Anne Bell’s Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching, which outlines specific kinds of counternarratives--concealed, resistance, and emerging/transforming stories--and argues that placing these stories in conversation with more standard, familiar stock stories “enables us to see that the mainstream story is not normative but one among many, and thus contestable” (21). Bell’s work asks us to reflect on whose stories have been lost and what we might gain through intentional text selection. In her call to action, we are reminded that stories themselves are some of the best tools we have to equip students with a more actively antiracist perspective. As Chimamanda Adichie affirms in her now viral TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story: “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
“The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map. You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”
As we discuss how writing supports student well-being, we must include anti-racism work as wellness work for our students. In order to support their BIPOC friends and community, white students need the language and the tools to engage in difficult conversations and understand the role we, as white people, play in structural racism. As Borsheim-Black and Sargianides state, “In our teaching in White-dominant contexts, when White students share that they have not considered their Whiteness before, we must recognize that this omission, this silencing in their lives and in our own, must be rectified.”
As white educators in a predominantly white school, we can foster the wellness of all of our students by opening a racial dialogue with them through writing and reading. As we walk this journey we must push ourselves to see our American Voices essential question of “Whose stories do we value, and why?” as not only about diversity, but about belonging. As Meena Srinivasan, Executive Director of The Center for Transformational Leadership states, “Belonging is often characterized as an emotional need we all have to feel seen and connected. While this is true, as educators it’s important to expand and contextualize our understanding of what belonging truly means, especially as our nation faces a deep sense of polarization. True belonging calls upon us to cultivate an expansive, compassionate quality where we enlarge our circles of concern and interrogate all the ways in which we consciously and unconsciously engage in acts of othering.” Cultivating a sense of belonging builds trust and empathy in our classroom communities, which feels like an essential link between student well-being and writing and talking about race, racism, identity, and inclusion.
This is just the beginning. We are always testing, trusting, learning, and our future goals include creating assignments and rubrics that assess antiracist competencies and standards. We also aim to craft deliberate self-reflections on these standards in our students’ final portfolios, asking them: Whose voices are centered? Whose are marginalized, or even missing? What does this mean, and why does it matter? And how can you use your voice to continue this work?
As mentioned, we recently took a GOA course on “Designing for Equity,” and in one reflection we pledged: “I will disrupt the silence around race that can happen in predominantly white schools- it can be easy for teachers to assume this work is “for others” or “not related to my content” when in fact it is part of every aspect of our pedagogy.” We are only beginning our work to keep this promise.
Megan Griffin is a found poet who finds herself poetically searching.
Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.
Adichie, Chimamanda. The Danger of a Single Story. TED Talks, 2009.
Bell, Lee Anne. Storytelling for Social Justice: Connecting Narrative and the Arts in Antiracist Teaching. Routledge, 2020.
Borsheim-Black, Carlin and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. Letting Go of Literary Whiteness: Antiracist Literature Instruction for White Students. Teachers College Press, 2019.
Lamott, Anne. 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing. TED Talks, 2017.
Srinivasan, Meena. “Belonging: The Heart of Social Emotional Learning.” Medium, 23 February 2021.
Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.
Learn more about “Designing for Equity” from the Global Online Academy here.