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Learning about race, racism, and inequality: schoolbooks - Zer Netmouse
March 16th, 2009
09:10 am

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Learning about race, racism, and inequality: schoolbooks
[cross-posted to racism_101]

In a discussion the other day I was comparing a story someone told online to the storyline of a book I thought everyone reads in elementary school, junior high or high school, about race. My companion didn't recognize the story and when I managed to remember the title and the author (The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison), he confirmed he hadn't read it. We then went through a series of titles I read in school and for some reason thought most people my age had been exposed to in school. He had read none of them, and pointed out that I grew up in a community that particularly valued diversity. I don't know why I had kind of assumed this aspect of my education was somehow a "typical" American Literature education.

I found myself wondering, what did other people read to learn about race and cultural differences and how to connect across them? These books? Something different?

So I thought I would post and ask: Did you read these books in school? If so, what do you think of them? If not, what did you read? Regardless, what contemporary books can you recommend for school age children for teaching these kinds of lessons?

The books are shown and listed here and described below the cut tag. The Bluest Eye, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were all taught in class. I came upon The Chosen on my own but was told others studied it in school. As for The Cay and The Wave, I don't remember where or when I got them, but I've had them since I was quite young, and they are good books relevant to the topic, so I wanted to include them.

schoolbooks



I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The first book in Maya Angelou's five-book autobiography, this book vividly describes what it was like for Maya to grow up as black woman in the 1930s. Topics in the book include the sexual assault of a young person so it is not appropriate for very young readers, but I do think that most teenagers could benefit from reading it.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor
This book won the Newbery Medal and a search on Amazon.com turns up more teachers' editions than regular ones, so I guess it's been fairly widely taught. Another book about young black kids growing up and learning to deal with racism and social injustice.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison gives a heart-breakingly clear depiction of how a child reacts when the societal image of beauty and specialness does not include her: she wishes to be other than she is.

The Cay by Theodore Taylor
This is a story of a young white boy who lives in the West Indies and gets stranded on an island with a black man (and a cat). Much more of a feel-good story than the others so far, The Cay explores issues of both race and class as the boy is struck blind and must depend on his older companion to teach him how to survive.

The Chosen by Chaim Potok
This is the story of a friendship between an orthodox Jew and another boy who is from a different culture. I first read Chaim Potok's My name is Asher Lev, which is about a orthodox jewish artist's struggle to find a bridge between his faith and his yearning to draw. I have read everything I've found by him since and recommend it all.

The Wave by Todd Strasser
"The classroom experiment that went too far" --this book is a dramatization of a 1969 incident in a high school history class in California that stemmed from a teacher's efforts to teach about group pressure and social movements. It was also made into an ABC dramma, which is available on DVD.

(26 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:elizilla
Date:March 16th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
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I've read some but not all of these. None were ever assigned in any school I attended.
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From:aiela
Date:March 16th, 2009 01:17 pm (UTC)
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I never read any of those books in school. We didn't read a lot of actual novels in middle school (Brittany's reading programs, throughout school, have almost -only- been novels, not the short story readers I grew up with) and in high school I don't remember reading a lot of novels either, it was mostly short stories (My American Lit class in high school read a few, but then I took AP English and that was almost 100% short stories.)
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From:mrissa
Date:March 16th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
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I had a different set--To Kill a Mockingbird and Sula and The Invisible Man and some others. But that was when they still had the good English teachers at my school. They were busy chasing them out by the time I graduated, and replacing rigor with whining. I think if I said that in some forums they would assume that the number of authors of color went up with the whiners, but that's not my view of the situation at all, nor is it supported by the facts. The curriculum with more diverse authors was more rigorous.
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From:ktempest
Date:March 16th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC)
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In School we read The Cay and Roll of Thunder. I remember reading Caged Bird but can't remember if it was for school or just for myself. (I even had that specific edition.) I was encouraged to read Bluest Eye by my family, but when I saw what it was about the subject hit far too close to home, so I didn't. I also remember reading Kindred for school and freaking out because I identified so directly and intensely with the protagonist that every bad thing that happened to her felt like it was happening to me and I Could Not Deal. I've always felt that Octavia was a genius for being able to do that, but BOY was it uncomfortable.
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From:urban_exotic
Date:March 16th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
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I haven't read any of these books. I went to a parochial school, but I'm not sure if that's relevant.
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From:jadesfire55
Date:March 16th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)
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We read The Cay in school when I was pretty young (late elementary?) but none of the others. The only book I can remember dealing with race issues was Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli.

I think my reading lists at school had more to do with socioeconomic and social issues: Peppermints in the Parlor, Snow Treasure, A Little Princess, As I Lay Dying, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Tuck Everlasting, Z for Zachariah. That's all I can remember off the top of my head.
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From:dd_b
Date:March 16th, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
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I've never read any of those; haven't heard of most of them. However, the Toni Morrison for example is copyright the year I was in 10th grade, which may be a factor in why I didn't see it in school.
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From:blondbaron
Date:March 16th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
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I went to public school in chicago, where there was a focus on african-american issues. For some reason, the actual classes I was in didn't read any of these books, but I know that plenty of other people in my school read several o them for class. I did read "to kill a mockingbird" (twice), "their eyes were watching god", and a number of short stories that dealt with racial issues.
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From:branchandroot
Date:March 16th, 2009 04:41 pm (UTC)
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I went to a public school in small-town, overwhelmingly white, Michigan, and didn't encounter any such books in class until I took AP English, at which point we read Native Son in repertory with Crime and Punishment.

The school libraries were somewhat better provided, and I found Chaim Potok and Leon Uris on my own, in high school. I'm not sure exactly when I picked up The Color Purple; it might have been middle school but I think it was high school.
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From:skylarker
Date:March 16th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC)
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To Kill a Mockingbird was probably the closest thing we were assigned when I was in public school.
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From:dreamshark
Date:March 16th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
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As far as I can recall, modern fiction was never on the assigned reading list when I was in school (and by "modern" I mean anything written in the previous 40 or 50 years).

I did read To Kill a Mockingbird but not as a school assignment, and I think it should be on any such reading list. Some others that made a big impression on me were Manchild in the Promised Land, Black Like Me and The Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, not H.G.Wells). I think I read those in college.

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From:netmouse
Date:March 16th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
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Thank you so much for mentioning Manchild in the Promised Land! We read that and Native Son, and when someone mentioned NS I thought, "no, I hated that one, but we read another similar one that I liked," but I couldn't remember the name!

Manchild in the Promised Land was it. About a boy growing up in Harlem. By Claude Brown. Excellent book.

Edited at 2009-03-16 08:50 pm (UTC)
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From:netmouse
Date:March 16th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
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Where did you go to school when you were young?
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From:cos
Date:March 16th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
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We read something by Toni Morrison and something by Maya Angelou, I'm sure, but I don't remember which, and they're not the ones on your list. I read The Chosen on my own. None of the books on your list were used in any of my classes, as far as I recall.

I attended grades 1 through 10 in Brookline, MA, which is just about the most diverse local school system I know of (unless you expand to a much larger scale, like "New York City" - but I don't think any individual in the NYC schools would get nearly as much diversity in school as a kid growing up in Brookline). There may just not be as much of a consensus canon in this sphere, so different places choose different books.

Did you read Things Fall Apart in school?
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From:netmouse
Date:March 16th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
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No! I've never heard of Things Fall Apart before. An amazon.com review calls it the most read piece of African literature... I'll have to check it out, yes?
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From:dreamshark
Date:March 16th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)

total non sequitor ahead

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I can't say I've ever heard of that book. But it reminds me of my completely unsubstantiated theory that "Second Coming" is the most-referenced poem in the English language this side of Shakespeare.

Edited at 2009-03-16 09:16 pm (UTC)
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From:matt_arnold
Date:March 16th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
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I have heard of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, but never read it. I have never heard of the others. I read To Kill A Mockingbird in school.
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From:lirrin
Date:March 17th, 2009 03:23 am (UTC)
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I haven't read any of those books, in school or out.
I did teach both To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn to students when I was a student teacher in a seriously upperclass whitebread-style school. (not all the students were white, but they were definitely in a privileged area that was predominately white.)

I'm thinking back on the books I had to read for school, and I don't think most of them had much diversity. It wasn't really something we talked about much at all. We had very few non-white students, but there weren't really many racial issues either as we were all pretty much from the same socio-economic bracket if not the same race. I was probably 15 before it really sank in that my friend Tyler was Japanese. It just never came up one way or the other.

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From:ellalthea
Date:March 17th, 2009 11:03 am (UTC)
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We read the Cay, and I know why the Caged Bird sings. Amusingly enough, one of the parents in the school tried to stop up from reading I know why the Caged Bird Sings because of the sexual abuse and early pregnancy. This parent was wacky religious and hated women (and was a woman!) as well.
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From:knightlygoddess
Date:March 17th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
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In school, I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Cay, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Not a single one of these books were "required reading". However, they were books on a "diverse" booklist that we had to choose from, read, and prepare a project for (not a book report, more of a creative interpretation of specific parts of the book from our own perspectives).

More "diverse" books that WERE required reading for my specific curriculum in high school were Black Boy by Richard Wright, and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Anything by Toni Morrison could NOT be "required" reading per the school board (they didn't ban the books, just prevented them from being used by a teacher for an entire classroom) because of various small town conservative and anti-black beliefs.

Here are some of my recommendations - I have many more, but they won't all fit in this comment box. :)

Holocaust/Jewish Perspectives
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (SKIP the movie, total drek, but the book is good) by John Boyne

Books for social outcasts, or to give perspectives on social outcasts:
Give a Boy a Gun by Todd Strasser FANTASTIC post-Columbine book about the lead up and the come-down in a school shooting that shows various sides. This isn't just a weepy cookie-cutter book designed to cash in on tragedies, it's actually done in a well-thought out and YA appropriate way to talk about these issues in a SAFE and secure setting...anything by Strasser is worth putting in a students' hands.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ted Vizzini. Phenominal book (based on a true story) about an over-achieving student who learns the hard way that his shit doesn't stink. Going from an average public school to one of the finest Manhatten schools, he finds that he's not so damned special after-all, and spirals down into a depression. Great book for that student who thinks that they know everything. (and great for discussing expectations, society, personal and others).

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga. Geeky boy and geeky girl form a very tentative friendship. This is a great book for ALL YA to read in order to give some perspective on other students that never get any attention at all. I found it to be far less cheesy than I thought going into it, and the students that I have had read it really responded to it positively.

Tears of a Tiger, Forged By Fire and Darkness Before Dawn by Sharon M. Draper – I didn’t particularly like these books, I’m not thrilled with the quality of the writing…however, students LOVE them. Students who have never read a book in their lives love them, and to me, that’s the best way to get them to read more. Plus, these books are usually easily approved for in-classroom use, despite the sometimes “uncomfortable” subject matter (these aren’t all in ONE book, but the trilogy covers: suicide, rape, incest, drug/substance abuse, physical abuse, manipulation, racial relations, responsibility, young-adult relationships, etc.).

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
When I first heard that MTV created its own PUBLISHING Company and that they were marketing “fresh new teen novels” I scoffed, I laughed, I poked fun in every way possible. But I was wrong. I’ve read 5 novels put out by MTV publishing, and they’re all very solid, with good characters, well thought out plots and generally well written by the authors. (Yet, I DO NOT approve of the MTV “Fast Girls, Hot Boys” series which is a step backward for YA lit.)

This novel appeals on so many levels. First there is the format; diary formats are always appealing because you’re not supposed to read someone else’s diary/journal. They contain secret things that you don’t tell anyone, not even your best friend. Second, there is Charlie, the protagonist. I think Charlie may just be the most loveable teen character I’ve read yet. Read this. Tell your students about this book, and hopefully they’ll read it too.



Edited at 2009-03-17 08:41 pm (UTC)
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From:mbumby
Date:March 23rd, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
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I have not read any of these books -- although when I was in HS, I think I heard of a dramatic presentation of something based on Caged Bird -- but did not see that.

In College, don't remember which class, I read Native Son.
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From:netmouse
Date:March 23rd, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
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If you don't mind my asking, where did you go to school and what year did you graduate from high school?
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From:mbumby
Date:March 23rd, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
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New Jersey, 1979
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From:realmjit
Date:March 25th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
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The ABC drama was a either an after-school special or a movie of the week -- It may have been a prime-time after school special. I remember when it aired, but i didn't watch it.

When Wookiee and I went to see Coraline, there was a trailer for a remake of The Wave.
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