I make it a point to show my students many perspectives within the literature I teach in my English classes. We study works that have been deemed “classics,” but we also study works that lie somewhere outside the literary canon. Since the canon has been made up of the “dead white guys” for so long, I like to incorporate other works by women and people of color into my curriculum. The students seem to appreciate this, not only because it shows them that their diverse perspectives are important in the world and in my classroom, but also because, in a world where George Zimmerman can shoot an unarmed Trayvon Martin, these perspectives on race and gender matter.
It’s also no secret that many works within the literary canon are flat out racist. In preparation for my senior Advanced Placement class next year, I have been reading my way through the list recommended works and deciding what to teach. I picked up Joseph Conrad’s famed 1899 work, “Heart of Darkness” — a look at colonialism in Africa at the turn of the century — very early because it is one of the most-used works on the AP test in May. As I was reading it, however, I kept having to stop because I was so appalled that something so racist could be so highly recommended in this day and age for a high school curriculum. When I asked a fellow teacher about this, she said, “Well, it’s a classic. They have to know the classics!”
Do they have to know the classics? Why was this novel deemed a classic to begin with? Most likely it was included in the literary canon because it was written by a white author and was a popular text at the time. We still forgo texts that tackle the same subjects written by people of color — like Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” which is a recommended text for AP classes but is not as high on the list as “Heart of Darkness” — because we want our students to succeed and, when we know “Heart of Darkness” will more likely appear on the test than “Things Fall Apart,” we teach the former and hope for the best.
Sometimes, even though a text itself doesn’t appear racist, the author may have views you don’t agree with. People are calling for a boycott of the movie “Ender’s Game” this fall because of Orson Scott Card’s vehement anti-gay views. The book itself is not anti-gay, but the author’s views matter when deciding what to consume as readers and movie-viewers.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Timothy L. McNair, a black man studying opera singing at Northwestern University, refused to perform a piece by Walt Whitman. Whitman, also an author who frequently shows up on the literary canon, was a notorious racist. He called Black people “baboons” and also stated that America is “for the whites.” However, when McNair refused to perform Whitman’s work, he was denied his diploma, a decision that the university backed.
I do think it is important for students to be exposed to all sorts of literature. We cannot shelter them from the world’s racism and discrimination, but we can educate them about it and give them tools to survive in this world. However, when a student refuses to perform or read a work because of his or her political leanings, accommodations should be made.
McNair was not refusing to perform the work because he was lazy and didn’t want to do it. He refused to perform the work of a man who actively denounced black people. It would have been very easy to find another piece for him to perform. Similarly, if I have a student who refuses to read a work I’ve selected because of his or her political leanings, its not difficult to find another text for him or her to read.
As for me, I will be teaching “Heart of Darkness” this fall, but I will also be teaching works by Achebe in an effort to help my students understand the views of all people all around the world. I hope more teachers start doing the same, because situations like McNair’s shouldn’t be common anymore.
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