The English curriculum during my sophomore year of high school covered some of the most prominent works of the Western canon. In ten short months, my class followed a prep school dropout through the streets of Manhattan and his own moral awakening, and witnessed a degenerate and runaway slave escape from the rural South and social conventions. While Holden Caulfield’s ennui and Huckleberry Finn’s defiance certainly resonate with any hormonal sixteen year old, looking back, it wasn’t their coming-of-age plights that spoke to me the most that year. Rather, it was that of Janie’s, protagonist of in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. She is a woman who, at the height of racial, class, and patriarchal marginalization, unapologetically takes hold of her autonomy. There is something else to be said about this novel in relation to the others studied. It was the only prose work written by a female or black author.
People tend to enjoy stories that include some facet of their lives and identities. Even in the most dense and obscure of fantasy plots, there must be some similarity – a character, a tone, a mindset – in order to facilitate an exchange between the writer and reader. For many of the girls in my class and me, all it took was a female author like Zora Neale Hurston writing about a female protagonist. Discussing the work and writing the essays became more fulfilling, even fun (you know, as fun as any school-assigned reading can get). Without this parallel, what’s left is largely apathy. The assignment becomes a search for literary devices on thin sheets of wood with masses of letters on them rather than actual engagement. And that’s part of where the problem lies in English classes: the inability for students of different backgrounds to relate to the books covered.
There’s a prevalent homogeneity in many literature curriculums in the United States. Unit after unit, students study works largely about elite white men written by elite white men. Somewhere in the material studied there might be a footnote on the Harlem Renaissance, brief mentions of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. When women aren’t commodified love interests, a compelling one like Jane Eyre might awaken for a unit only to slip back to the stuffy object of affection for British poets the next. It’s difficult enough for many to like the books studied when they’re centuries old and read under grade-centric mentalities. To have the chasm widened even further by having little connection with the material just piles onto detachment from the book, course, and if the student doesn’t like it to begin with – reading as a whole.
The influence of the English class is inescapable. It’s the only setting in a person’s life where they’ll be forced to sit down and read whether they like it or not. (Even for those who Sparknote every book and somehow pass the course – they’re still engaged in some interaction.) It may be the only setting that a student will ever read in, and so, its importance intensifies. Here lies a limited block of time that has the potential to expose students to life-changing and awakening material. All that the humanities have to offer captured in one class. It could take one book similar to a student’s own situation that can open them up to the world of reading. But if this book isn’t there, then that opportunity may never come elsewhere.
“We’re so erased.” says Junot Diaz in a conversation with Hilton Als for the Strand Bookstore. “If you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you’re from a poor family, if you’re from a rural family, if you’re from a family who worked like dogs and never got any respect or a share of the profits, you know that ninety-nine percent of your stories ain’t been told.” These stories aren’t heard enough. They lack the necessary platform for mass exposure and will continue circulating in a vacuum without it. With hundreds of campaigns and organizations seeking to introduce new voices to mainstream literature outside of English classes, it could take this environment for the goal to be met.
A necessary change awaits. The literature curriculum needs to better mirror the human population with regards to everything from race and gender to religion and sexuality. There’s just as much to be said about Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine’s tumultuous relationship as Romeo and Juliet’s. Sonia Sanchez’s proclamations of femininity summon equal weight and storm as Emily Dickinson’s. There are nuances, multitudes, and subjectivities to the human experience, and to pull the plug and isolate the spectrum to a single, unwavering narrative and title the course “American” or “global” literature makes for an unsettling misnomer. More than ever, we need the books curated to reflect not the most historically significant, the best-selling, nor the most challenging of material, but the students, the readers, above all else.